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WITH much anticipation, the women squatted around the brightly decorated clay pot patiently fanning the fire under the pot.

From time to time, one of them would take a peek into the pot to see if the milk rice inside the pot had started to boil.

Barely a few minutes later, someone cried out that the milk rice had boiled and there was a flurry of excitement as everyone quickly gathered around the pot to witness the milk rice spill over the pot.

For Tamils, it is considered a good sign to watch it boil over as it means that good luck and prosperity is forthcoming.

The elderly women in the group cried out: Ponggalo Ponggal! Ponggalo Ponggal! while another woman blew the sangu (a conch), a custom practised during the festival to announce to all those present that it was going to be a year blessed with good tidings.

The women are members of the Malaysia Hindu Sangam (Butterworth branch) women’s section celebrating the Ponggal festival for the first time at the organisation’s building, which was bought only recently.

Ponggal is a festival for Hindus of Tamil origin to mark the beginning of their calendar month of Thai. Malay-sians celebrate Ponggal as a thanksgiving occasion.

Branch chairman G. Shanmuga-nathan said that as it was the first time the members were celebrating Ponggal at the building belonging to the organisation, they wanted to make it a grand affair.

He said that every year in January, Indians especially Tamils celebrate the Ponggal as a thanksgiving festival and pray for a good year ahead.

“Homes and temple grounds are spruced up, new clothes are bought for the occasion, while flowers and sugar canes are used to decorate the place,” he said.

The festival falls on the first day of the Tamil month of Thai or between Jan 12 and Jan 15 in the Gregorian calendar and celebrated for three days

Shanmuganathan said Ponggal was a harvest festival, which was grandly celebrated in India by those in the agriculture industry, especially farmers.

Women’s section chief Nalini Devi explained that the festival was actually celebrated over four days beginning with Bhogi on the eve of Ponggal.

Bhogi is the day where the ritual of throwing away and burning old clothes and unwanted things takes place to signify the end of an old era and the start of a new one.

“The second day is the actual Ponggal day, which is also known as veetu ponggal where Tamils give thanks to Mother Earth and the Sun God (Surya bhagavan) for their bounty,” she said.

Mattu ponggal (cow worship) is celebrated on the third day, which is to offer thanks to the cattle, which plough the land and provide milk for the family.

Finally, the fourth day is the celebration of the kanni ponggal, especially for the young maidens who want to seek good husbands.

Nalini added that most Tamils would rise about 4am on Ponggal day to start preparations for the prayers, usually held during sunrise.

She said the highlight of the day was the cooking of the sweetened milk rice in new clay pots, which was later topped with brown sugar, cashew nuts and raisins.

“Newly harvested rice and vegetables which are earlier offered during the prayer to the Sun God are also cooked in the pot and later served to family members and friends,” she said.

It is believed that the festival has been in practice for some 5,000 years.