Pongal is also referred to as Thai Pongal, is a multi-day Hindu harvest festival of South India, particularly in the Tamil community. It is observed at the start of the month Tai according to Tamil solar calendar, and this is typically about January 14. It is dedicated to the Hindu sun god, the Surya, and corresponds to Makar Sankranti, the harvest festival under many regional names celebrated throughout India. The three days of the Pongal festival are called Bhogi Pongal, Surya Pongal and Maattu Pongal. Some Tamils celebrate a fourth day of Pongal as Kanum Pongal.
The Pongal festival begins on the day called Bhogi Pongal, and it marks the last day of the Tamil month Marghazi. On this day people discard old belongings and celebrate new possessions. The people assemble and light a bonfire in order to burn the heaps of discards. Houses are cleaned, painted and decorated to give a festive look. The horns of oxen and buffaloes are painted in villages. New clothes are worn to mark the start of the festival. The deity of the day is Indra– the god of rains, to whom prayers are offered, with thanks and hopes for plentiful rains in the year ahead.
Bhogi is also observed on the same day in Andhra Pradesh. In the ceremony called Bhogi Pallu, fruits of the harvest such as regi pallu and sugar cane are collected along with flowers of the season. Money is often placed into a mixture of treats and is poured over children. The children then separate and collect the money and sweet fruits.
Surya Pongal – also called Suryan Pongal or Perum Pongal – is the second and main festive day, and is dedicated to the Hindu god Surya. It is the first day of the Tamil calendar month Tai, and coincides with Makara Sankranthi – a winter harvest festival celebrated throughout India. The day marks the start of the Uttarayana, when the sun enters the 10th house of the zodiac Makara (Capricorn). The day is celebrated with family and friends, with the Pongal dish prepared in a traditional earthen pot in an open space in the view of the sun. The pot is typically decorated by tying a turmeric plant or flower garland, and near the cooking stove are placed two or more tall fresh sugarcane stalks.
The pongal dish is traditionally prepared by boiling milk, in a group setting. When it starts to bubble, freshly harvested rice grains and cane sugar are added to the pot. As the dish begins to boil and overflow out of the vessel, one or more participants blow a conch called the sanggu while others shout with joy “Pongalo Pongal”! – lit. “may this rice boil over”. This is symbolism for the shared wish of greater fortunes in the year ahead. In rural settings, the gathered women or neighbors sing “kuruvai trills” (traditional songs) while the pongal dish is cooking. The dish is offered to the gods and goddesses, sometimes to the village cows, and then shared by the community. Men traditionally offer prayers to the sun with the namaskaram posture in open, and then proceed to eat their meal. According to James Lochtefeld, the Pongal dish is first offered to Surya and Ganesha, and then shared with the gathered friends and family.
Tamilians decorate their homes with banana and mango leaves and embellish the entrance space before homes, corridors or doors with decorative floral, festive or geometric patterns drawn using colored rice flour. These are called kolams.
Mattu Pongal is celebrated the day after Surya Pongal. Mattu refers to “cow, bullock, cattle”, and Tamil Hindus regard cattle as sources of wealth for providing dairy products, fertilizer, transportation and agricultural aid. On Mattu Pongal, cattle are decorated – sometimes with flower garlands or painted horns, they are offered bananas, a special meal and worshipped. Some decorate their cows with manjalthanni (turmeric water) and oil. Shikakai apply kungumam (kumkum) to their foreheads, paint their horns, and feed them a mixture of venn pongal, jaggery, honey, banana and other fruits. Others bathe their cattle and prostrate before them with words of thanks for the help with the harvest.
In cities, the day marks the ritual visit to nearby temples and prayers there. Temples and communities hold processions by parading icons from the sanctum of the temple in wooden chariots, drama-dance performances encouraging social gatherings and renewal of community bonds.
Other events during Pongal include community sports and games such as cattle race, the Jallikattu. The major cultural festivals on Pongal occur near Madurai.
Festive dress, dance event and community processions for Pongal.
Kanum Pongal, sometimes called the Kanu Pongal, the fourth day of the festival, marks the end of Pongal festivities for the year. The word kanum (kaanum) in this context means “to visit.” Many families hold reunions on this day. Communities organize social events to strengthen mutual bonds. Villagers cut and consume farm fresh sugarcane during social gatherings. Relatives, friends and neighbors visit to greet, while youngsters go out to meet seniors among the relatives and neighborhoods to pay respects and seek blessings, while some elders give the visiting children some pocket change as a gift.
Kanu Pidi is a tradition observed on Mattu Pongal by women and young girls. They place a leaf of turmeric plant outside their home, and feed the leftover pongal dish and food from Surya Pongal to the birds, particularly crow. They pray for their brothers’ well being, in a manner similar to Bhaiya dooj in north India. Brothers pay special tribute to their married sisters by giving gifts as affirmation of their filial love.
The Pongal festival maybe viewed more as a “social festival” since the contemporary celebrations do not necessarily link it to temple rituals. Temples and cultural centers organize the ritual cooking of Pongal dish, along with fairs (Pongal mela) with handicrafts, crafts, pottery, sarees, ethnic jewelry for sale. These sites hold traditional community sports such as Uri Adithal , Pallanguzhi and Kabbadi, as well as group dance and music performances in major cities and towns.
In Karnataka, the festival days are similar, except the dish is called “Ellu”. Decorations and social visits are also common in many parts of Karnataka.
This day coincides with Makara Sankranthi, and Maghi (day after Lohri). It is celebrated in many parts of India, Nepal and Bangladesh.
How to Celebrate
According to tradition, the festival marks the end of winter solstice, and the start of the sun’s six-month-long journey northwards when the sun enters the zodiac Makara (Capricorn). The festival is named after the ceremonial “Pongal”, which means “to boil, overflow” and refers to the traditional dish prepared from the new harvest of rice boiled in milk with jaggery (raw sugar). To mark the festival, the pongal sweet dish is prepared, first offered to the gods and goddesses (goddess Pongal), followed sometimes with an offering to cows, and then shared by the family. Festive celebrations include decorating cows and their horns, ritual bathing and processions. It is traditionally an occasion for decorating rice-powder based kolam artworks, offering prayers in the home, temples, getting together with family and friends, and exchanging gifts to renew social bonds of solidarity.