MINNETONKA — Colorful dancers twirled and dipped on the stage at Hopkins High School while the halls filled with the language of Tamil on Saturday, Jan. 18, for the Pongal Harvest Festival.

Tamil is a culture and language that originated in the southern India state of Tamil Nadu. The Minnesota Tamil Sangam, a nonprofit organization that promotes Tamil, hosted the one-day event at the high school to celebrate Pongal.

Pongal is traditionally a four-day festival that begins on the first day of the Tamil calendar year, the month of Thai, which is roughly Jan. 15.

Events like Pongal are important to bring members of the community together to celebrate even if they aren’t in their homeland, said Sachidanandhan Ventakrishnan, vice president of the Minnesota Tamil Sangam.

“We have to take it to the next generation so we celebrate at home, but that does not carry the depth and the breadth of the festival,” Ventakrishnan said.

The event featured all four elements of a traditional four-day Pongal celebration: the Pongal rice dish, thanking the bulls who help with the harvest, a celebration of literature and a celebration of the arts.

The first part of the event was a meal, which was prepared the same way it is in Tamil Nadu, Ventakrishnan said. Pongal translates to “overflowing pot” and is the name of the rice dish that is central to the Pongal festival and the festival meal. In India, the pot would be presented to the sun god as an offering and a thank you for a great harvest.

Following the meal was a program, almost all in Tamil. The auditorium at Hopkins High School was filled to the brim with Tamil students and parents. The outside of the auditorium was decorated with fake banana leaves — in Tamil Nadu, the festival would be full of banana trees and banana leaves, Ventakrishnan said.

“Our kids can learn about the culture,” Amutha Mubhusamy, a volunteer and board member for the MNTS Tamil School in Woodbury and Eden Prairie, told Lakeshore Weekly News. “They will learn only through these kinds of events. As a mother, that is an important reason.”

Students in costumes read prepared speeches of the Lord Indra, the god of clouds who brings rain and is an integral part of the harvest. The event included a musical performance of Urumis, or drums, and then students dressed in colorful, traditional clothing performed dances they learned at the MNTS Tamil School.

Minnesota Sen. John Hoffman, D-Champlin, attended the meal and a portion of the program. Several other officials attended the event, including State Rep. Leon Lillie, D-North St. Paul, from the Festival of Nations and Leigh Schiecher of the Minnesota Department of Education.

State proclamation

Gov. Tim Walz on Dec. 31, 2019, designated the month of January 2020 as “Tamil Language and Heritage Month,” according to a certificate from the governor’s office.

This was an important recognition for the Tamil community.

“Even though we are minorities, we don’t feel that when things like this happen,” Mubhusamy said.

The governor’s proclamation says the Tamil community has contributed to bilingual literacy, with Minnesota being the first state to achieve the Seal of Biliteracy for the Tamil language. Tamil is the longest-surviving classical language in the world with a traceable history of more than 2,600 years, the proclamation noted.

Frances Stevenson is a reporter for the Lakeshore Weekly News, covering the communities around Lake Minnetonka.