India is a country of festivals. During my travels in the country, I’ve stumbled upon many, often quite by accident. Some are riots of colour, moments of prayer, celebrations of culture or some seem simply an excuse to eat, drink and get together. I didn’t know about Pongal until I touched down in Chennai and the airport was donned up in Christmas lights reading ‘Happy Pongal’. The next day, the first day of the four-day celebration, women were using coloured powder to make patterns outside their homes in a suburb of Chennai. The streets felt quiet, as they do before Christmas in England – when the time is spent with family, street stalls close down for a few days and children take time off school.
Pongal is Tamil Nadu’s harvest festival. It happens every year in mid-January and celebrations take place across the state – from the temples to the home to the beaches. We head south to Mahabalipuram, a temple town by the sea and I find that the local tourism board is inviting travellers to witness a Pongal festival in a nearby village. From a bus, we pull up into a dusty village, where a blue painted temple is surrounded by women in vibrant sari’s painting the ground in powder and others stirring huge steaming pots of Pongal, a traditional rice pudding dish named after the festival and eaten as a tradition during it.
The main attraction is a group of performers who I find around the back of the temple, applying to make up in the windscreen mirrors of their vehicles and attaching elaborate crowns to their long, luscious wigs. They are dressed as Hindu gods – Shiva, Laxmi and Vishnu, and with the application of their costumes, they seem to elude the same confidence as these idols. They dance for the locals, acting out dramatic performances from Hindu tales. The children of the village, all dressed in their best clothes, laugh and gleam in the wonder of these god-like humans who have appeared in their village, and afterwards many of them huddle around Laxmi to get selfies with the goddess of fortune.
Like any good festival, food is a central theme for Pongal and shortly after the performances wrap up, paper plates piled with rice pudding are handed around and we all tuck in with our hands at the sweet, sticky pudding which is laced thoroughly with cardamon and nutmeg. It’s utterly delicious which is lucky because the local women seem insistent on refilling my plate each time I finish.
Back in Mahabalipuram, and Pongal continues for a few days leaving the streets of the town desolate but the temple and open park areas heaving with families gathered for picnics and teenagers excitedly running from rock to rock as the sun sets over the boulder spotted valley. Pongal ends, but life continues to buzz, roar and be filled with colour in the state of Tamil Nadu.
Annapurna Mellor is a travel photographer, writer and co-founder of Roam Magazine. She fell in love with Asia shortly after graduating and has since spent extensive periods travelling and photographing in India, Nepal, Myanmar and many more. She shoots regularly for brands and publications and her work can be found in National Geographic Traveller Magazine, Lonely Planet, Suitcase and The Guardian. When not on the road, she is based in Manchester, UK.