Every January, South India celebrates Pongal, which marks the start of the harvest season. The four-day festival begins with “Bhogi,” the burning of the bad and the old – a tradition which originally was meant to burn the old thatch roof and replace it with a new one, but which has now transformed to burning old clothes and other unwanted material goods, and sometimes remnants of bad habits like empty cigarette packets and alcohol bottles. The next three days of the festival are enjoyed with feasts on the first harvests of rice (eaten in its sweet boiled form, a dish also known as pongal) and sugar cane. But the most exciting events of Pongal happen on the third and fourth days – the celebrations of cows and bulls, the beasts of burden who play such an important role in harvesting livelihood.
One of the oldest traditions of Maattu Pongal (literally meaning “Cow Pongal,” which is celebrated on the third or fourth day, varying by village) is the bullock cart pull. Variations of this can still be seen in some villages, like that of Bahour, just south of Pondicherry. A procession of bullock carts begins by evening, but preparations take place throughout the day. Bulls’ horns are painted and adorned with flowers or balloons, and bells are hung from their bridles. The carts are also decorated with palm leaves and balloons. As the carts assemble along the road, locals begin climbing in them, squeezing small children onto the laps of their siblings, parents, or cousins, to fit more people than the bull seems capable of pulling. At nearby temples, musicians bang rhythms on drums and performers dance and spin bamboo sticks.
Tractors, the modern version of the traditional bullock cart, are decorated in lights, leaves, and flowers. They pull their own carts of Maattu Pongal enthusiasts and speed down the opposite side of the street in a parade of their own. Some men wear sequinsed costumes over exaggerated bellies and white plastic masks, seemingly in imitation of sumo wrestlers. They join crowds of young men dancing to drum beats and bugle calls in the streets.
Anticipation grows waiting for the bull cart procession to begin. Then suddenly, they’re off! The bulls pull their carts in starts and stops according to traffic flow, trotting along to the beating of drums, the jangle of the bells around their own necks, and the cheering of the crowds along the sidelines and of the passengers in their carts. “Pongalo Pongal!” “Maattu Pongal!” “Happy Pongal!” Everyone cheers and waves as the celebrated bulls parade through the streets of town and around the temple.
People riding motorcycles wiz by through the narrow lanes on either side of the carts, honking their horns and cheering along with the rest of the participants. The bulls, bred for cart pulling and accustomed to the sounds of the Indian streets, keep trotting along unperturbed. Their painted horns bob along to the beat of their trot as if joining their humans in celebrative dance.
The sky grows dark but the Pongal spirit is loud and bright. The dancing continues even after the procession comes to its end and the bull carts have emptied. The village of Bahour rings in the harvest with the most festive of Maattu Pongals.