Today marks the final day of the Tamil harvest festival, Pongal. The first day of Pongal is spent worshiping the Sun; the Sun is the giver of life, and without it crops would not grow. The second day is spent paying respect to cows. They are critical to life on a farm; not only do they provide milk, but they save countless hours when it is time to till the soil. On the final day, nothing in particular is celebrated. So on this final day of the Tamil festival, Sarvodaya had a Pongal.
I arrived at Sarvodaya’s Trincomalee District Center at 7:30 in the morning, and preparations were already underway for the Pongal. Reeds were being hung, the pots were being put in place, and the food was being prepared. Pongal is both the name of the holiday, and the name of a delicious sweet rice made with coconut milk, dates, nuts, raisins, jaggery, and a healthy dose of sugar. Speakers were brought in, and not an hour later the fires were burning and the speakers were blasting. It was really quite something to see this community come together.
Local religious leaders – Buddhist Monks, Catholic Nuns, Christian Priests, Hindu Pandits,and Muslim Imams – all arrived for the opening ceremonies. Once the water had begun to boil, each religious figure filled their palms with rice and lifted it up to the Sun before pouring it into the Pongal pot. The cooking had begun!
After many years of war Sri Lanka is still a very divided society. Over the past few days I have been greeting everyone I speak to with, ‘happy Pongal‘. On more than one occasion, I was told by the person I had offered this greeting to that they were not Tamil, and they did not celebrate Pongal. Even here in Trinco, a primarily Tamil city, if I greet someone who is Sinhalese with vanikam (Tamil for hello) I will often be told that I should have said kohomada (Sinhala for hello). The environment at Sarvodaya could not have been more different.
When contextualized, the actions of these religious leaders are inspiring. I really respect the work that Shanti Sena, Sarvodaya’s peace building arm, put into this ceremony. Even my Buddhist, Christian, and Muslim students wished me a happy Pongal (in English!) when we first met this morning. The day could not have been summed up better than by a fellow staffer who told me, “we teach all Sri Lankans about Pongal, so we hope that when our students graduate they will tell their friends and family about Pongal next year. I hope they have made Tamil friends and can celebrate together.”
Reconciliation occurs slowly, one person at a time. These cultural activities are incredibly important, as they help to strengthen the sense of community across cultures. Given the affinity Sri Lankans have with sugar, you would be hard pressed to find anyone on this island who doesn’t like eating Pongal.