The Church of Divine Mercy (CDM) in Sg Ara, Penang was a hive of activity on Saturday 19th January. Groups of parishioners of all ages and ethnic backgrounds had been working hard since early morning to put the finishing touches to their preparations for Pongal. The culmination of all their efforts was the boiling of milk and rice which took place that afternoon. As the milk and rice was being prepared explanations were given as to the significance of each ingredient being added. While waiting for the milk to boil over, members of the parish Tamil Apostolate, the organizers of the event, led all those present in praying five decades of the rosary in Tamil. Everyone then gathered around the fire, their eyes riveted on the gaily painted earthen pot sitting on a pile of blazing firewood. As they watched with bated breath, the milk slowly but surely came to a boil and spilled over the sides of the pot, symbolizing overflowing abundance and prosperity. “This is the best part!”, someone was overheard saying excitedly as shouts of pongalo pongal rose up from the crowd. There was a general air of festivity as the strains of a Tamil hymn filled the air and a group of women dressed in colorful traditional Indian attire danced the kummi (a traditional harvest dance) around the fire.
Later that evening, the freshly-cooked pongal, was presented as an offering during the Sunset Mass. Also offered up were paddy husks, milk, sugar cane, sweetmeats, fruits and vegetables, all of which were representative of prosperity, abundance and the bounties of nature. In rounding up his homily, which was delivered in English and Tamil, parish priest Fr Martin Arlando said that since this year was the parish’s Year of Family, he hoped his parishioners would participate in parish life as a family and strengthen their familial bonds. He said that he was very happy to see that this was already happening, especially over the past few days when families and friends, young and old, worked together to help in preparing for Pongal.
After Mass, everyone gathered eagerly in Faustina Hall where they were entertained by the youth of the parish who performed several exuberant Bollywood-style dances. The highlight of the evening was a saree-tying contest in which contestants (men and women) had to drape on sarees. On-lookers and well-wishers were invited to help those having anyone, mostly men having difficult getting the saree fitted on right. The contestants then took to the catwalk as saree models, drawing screams of laughter from the audience.
The festivities continued after morning Mass the following day with games and contests held in the church basement. There were contests for drawing kolam, weaving thoranam, and poo kattuthal (flower-tying). Making a comeback by popular demand was the pot-breaking game, in which players wearing blindfolds and (mis)guided by instructions from the spectators, try to locate and break a hanging earthen pot with a stick. Many parishioners came to cheer on the contestants, while others came to mingle and sample the curries and sweetmeats on the buffet table.
A significant presence at this year’s celebrations was the youth of the parish who had turned up in full force to support the event as helpers and contestants. A few new faces were also spotted among the crowd. Doris, a member of the parish Chinese Apostolate, had helped to create the kolam and found it an eye-opening experience as she had not expected it to be such hard work. Jim, from Florida, USA, who looked resplendent in a turquoise kurta which he had bought specially for the occasion, said that it was interesting to see how cultural elements had been incorporated into the celebration of Mass.
All in all, everyone agreed that the Tamil Apostolate had organized yet another successful Pongal event. Kudos and thanks to the organizers, and to everyone, may the new year pave the way for new opportunities for bonding with family and friends. Thai pirandal vazhi pirakkum!
Ng Wai Queen.
22nd January, 2019