Dubai: no kite flying, no song and dance on a bonfire and no mega picnic plans. Traditional rituals associated with Indian harvest festivals marking the end of winter have been overlooked as Indian expats watched muted celebrations for Lohri, Makar Sankranti, Bihu and Pongal amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, expatriates from Tamil Nadu hosted a Pongal event at the Indian Consulate in Dubai and honored consulate staff for their service to the community during the peak of the pandemic. “Usually we have a big Pongal party at the Sheikh Rashid auditorium [in The Indian High School] with the participation of thousands of people. But, due to the pandemic, we canceled the mega event and held a small event in the consulate, ”said Dr Jayanthimala Suresh, chairman of Dubai Tamil Sangam.
Indian harvest festivals in winter
Pongal, Lohri, Makar Sankranti, and Magh Bihu are many regional names for harvest festivals celebrated in different states of India. They mark the passage of the winter solstice and the Sun God is revered primarily for giving energy and protection. These feasts are synonymous with feasts and bonfires.
She said the purpose of the celebration was to express the community’s gratitude to officials and mission staff who worked day and night to support the repatriation of hundreds of thousands of Indians during the height of the pandemic.
“Pongal is a harvest festival. It is also a day of thanksgiving for the Tamilians as we offer our gratitude to the sun, Mother Earth, farmers and cattle. We also decided to express our gratitude to the officials of the consulate.
Dr Jayanthimala said she helped organize 18 repatriation flights for expatriates from Tamil Nadu and personally witnessed the efforts of diplomats and other staff for repatriation services. She said these efforts inspired her to host the Pongal event at the mission and also to throw a lavish party.
As part of the Indian government’s Vande Bharat mission, hundreds of flights have been carried out to repatriate Indians stranded in the United Arab Emirates. Mission officials offered their services to record the contact details of those who wanted to return home and to shortlist those with the most compelling reasons at the height of the pandemic. They also facilitated flight operations with necessary approvals, in coordination with community groups and government entities. Diplomats and staff were also present at the airports to ensure that the repatriation process ran smoothly. “They did a wonderful job during the pandemic,” added Dr. Jayanthimala.
Neeraj Agrawal, consul for press, information and culture at the consulate, said consulate officials appreciated the gesture of community members. “This time there are no big celebrations. We ask our people to celebrate responsibly in their homes and hope that the pandemic situation will improve soon with the massive vaccination campaign that is now taking place.
The mission posted photos of the event to the Consulate and sent its best wishes on the occasion of the harvest celebrations. Retweeting the message from the consulate, the Indian Embassy in Abu Dhabi said, “The rich diversity of the Indian community in the UAE allows every flavor of Indianness to come to its fullest.”
Online indoor festivities
Some other members of the community, who also used to organize events to celebrate the festival, said they had limited the festivities at their homes this year. “Last year we had a nice party in a restaurant where our members wore ethnic outfits and performed traditional dances like kolattam and kummi. This time we just did puja [prayer rituals] and hosted a special Pongal party at home, ”said Meenakumari Pathmanathan, president of the Tamil Ladies Association.
She said the regular practice of hosting mega picnics had also been canceled due to the pandemic.
Kesar Kothari, a prominent member of the Rajasthan community, said community members would miss the kite ceremony they used to hold for Makar Sankranti. “Instead, we are attending a Zoom session where singers from Rajasthan will perform,” he said.