“Pongal” is a harvest festival of the Tamil speaking people of South India,equivalent to Thanksgiving here. In a civilization that is based on agriculture, the harvest plays an important part.
The farmer who cultivates his land depends on the cattle, the timely rain and the ever blessing rays of the Sun. Once a year, he expresses his gratitude to these elements of Nature and the farm animals that serve him & his family and all his kith & kin , who depend on the harvest for their daily lives.
“Pongal” is also the name given to the sweet dish prepared with cane sugar, milk & rice on this day to celebrate the festival.
With the end of the month of Margazhi (mid December to mid January) the new Tamil month of Thai heralds a series of festivals. The Tamil saying goes, ” Thai Pirandhal, Vazhi Pirakkum” which means when the month of ‘Thai’ begins , a new pathway of good opportunities , opens in each one’s life full of hope & promise. It is also called, ‘Tamilar Thirunaal’ which means a festival for Tamilians, all around the world.
If one needs to see what gratitude looks like, you have to be there during the festival of Pongal, it is portrayed in every farmer’s smile, the hard won crop of toiling all year round in the heat & the sun,the sweat that poured out, all reaps benefits on this day and the gratitude is palpable.Simple, unassuming, down to earth farmers, who appreciate everything they are given and are so thankful to Nature.
This is a festival that bears very little religious significance, it is totally a festival in celebration of the harvest, thanking the elements of the Nature, the cattle, the mother earth and a common bondage among each human being to grow together as a community……what makes this festival so beautiful and heartening !
Astronomical significance of the festival :
Many Indians conflate this festival with the Winter Solstice, and believe that the sun ends its southward journey (Sanskrit: Dakshinayana) at the Tropic of Capricorn, and starts moving northward (Sanskrit: Uttarayaana) towards the Tropic of Cancer, in the month of Pausha on this day in mid-January.
There is no observance of Winter Solstice in the Hindu religion. Further, the Sun makes its northward journey on the day after winter solstice when day light increases. Therefore, Makar Sankranti signifies the celebration of the day following the day of winter solstice.
Scientifically, in the Northern Hemisphere, winter solstice occurs between December 21 and 22. Day light will begin to increase on 22 December and on this day, the Sun will begin its northward journey which marks Uttarayaana. The date of winter solstice changes gradually due to the Axial precession of the Earth, coming earlier by approximately 1 day in every 70 years. Hence, if the Makara Sankranti at some point of time did mark the day after the actual date of winter solstice, a date in mid-January would correspond to around 300CE, the heyday of Indian mathematics and astronomy.
Pongal is the only festival of the Hindu’s that follows a solar calendar and is celebrated on the fourteenth of January every year. Pongal has astronomical significance: it marks the beginning of Uttarayana, the Sun’s movement northward for a six month period. In Hinduism, Uttarayana is considered auspicious, as opposed to Dakshinaayana, or the southern movement of the sun. All important events are scheduled during this period. Makara Sankranthi refers to the event of the Sun entering the zodiac sign of Makara or Capricorn.
Hindus celebrate major cosmic changes, such as the transmigration of the sun from one zodiac sign (Rashi) as Sankranti. Of the twelve sankrantis, Makara Sankranti on January 14th is the most significant; the sun passes through the winter solstice, from the Tropic of Cancer to the Tropic of Capricorn (Makar). We witness cosmic, astronomical harmony and prayerfully honor this scientific Truth. The six months of northern movement of the sun is followed by six months of southern movement.
As the earth starts its northward part of the rotation it brings the promise of a harvest of abundance and happiness in many parts of India, and the northern hemisphere around the world. The sowing season starts. Along the river Ganga in places like Ganga Sagar (where the river Ganga meets the Bay of Bengal) and Prayag/Allahabad millions of people bathe to honor the comingling of one life force (Sun) with another (water).
While Pongal is predominantly a Tamil festival, similar festivals are also celebrated in several other Indian states under different names. In Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, and Karnataka, the harvest festival Sankranthi is celebrated. In northern India, it is called Makara Sankranti. In Maharashtra and Gujarat, it is celebrated on the date of the annual kite flying day, Uttarayah. It also coincides with the bonfire and harvest festval in Punjab and Haryana, known as Lohri.
Though rarely followed in cities, most villages in Tamil Nadu mark the arrival of Pongal festival a month before (Margazhi – mid December to mid January) by embellishing the floor space of their dwelling entrance with decorative patterns called Kolam – drawn using rice flour and different colour powders- by female members of the family on or before dawn.
Traditionally dwellings are whitewashed with in the month of Margazhi to welcome the auspicious Thai Pongal.
Significance of Kolam/Rice Flour designs:
1.Kolam is traditionally made with rice flour that becomes food for ants and birds. In Indian philosophy, there is a concept of living in harmony with creatures around you. Thus, we feed the crows before we eat, feed the dog after we eat, feed the cows and elephants when we visit the temple, etc. We believe that if you do good karma to the creatures around you each day, they bless you and make the day less painful.
2.It is a form of artistic expression. Women with more creativity try to draw as intricate patterns as possible and become their neighbor’s envy. It is like an art exhibition, every day. Strangers and passerby could appreciate your artwork as they walk along the street.
3.Doing artistic work early in the morning is a great boost to manage the hard work rest of the day. Remember, Indian life can be pretty hard as we are still pretty poor. It is little things like these that take our attention off our pains and enable us to enjoy the world
4.It enables teamwork and social interactions. During winter months, women folk wake up at 4-5am in the morning in traditional neighborhoods and you could see them all working furiously with their own kolams. Neighbors could both comment on your work or give a hand.
5.Connecting with culture.When there are major festivals, the kolams get bigger and made around a theme. It is a history/culture lesson on a rice flour.
Pongal festival is celebrated for four days :
The festival is celebrated for four days…..
The First Day /Bhogi Pandigai
This first day is celebrated as Bhogi festival in honor of Lord Indra, the supreme ruler of clouds that give rains. Homage is paid to Lord Indra for the abundance of harvest, thereby bringing plenty and prosperity to the land. Another ritual is observed on this day, where useless household articles, old clothes are thrown into a fire made of wood and cow-dung cakes, signifying the ending of the old and marking the beginning of a new life. Girls dance around the bonfire, singing songs in praise of the gods, the spring and the harvest. The significance of the bonfire, in which is burnt the agricultural wastes and firewood is to keep warm during the last lap of winter.
The Second Day/ Thai Pongal :
The first prayer goes to the Sun God/ Surya, who shines upon the farmers through all the hurdles they faced during the cultivation of the crops in their fields.Thai Pongal is mainly celebrated to convey appreciation to the Sun God for providing the energy for agriculture. Part of the celebration is the boiling of the first rice of the season consecrated to the Sun – Surya.
The second day, the “Thai” Pongal day, is celebrated by boiling fresh milk early in the morning and allowing it to boil over the vessel – a tradition that is the literal translation for Pongal.
A flat square pitch is made and decorated with kolam drawings, and it is exposed to the direct sun light. A fire wood hearth will be set up using three bricks. . The cooking begins by putting a clay pot with water on the hearth.
A senior member of the family will conduct the cooking and the rest of the family dutifully assists him or her or watches the event. The spillover of milk is a propitious symbol of abundance and good omen and shouts of “ Pongalo Pongal”. Thereafter, a member of the family ceremoniously puts three handful of new rice inside the boiling pot.
The other ingredients of this special dish are sarkarai (brown cane sugar) or katkandu (sugar candy), milk (cow’s milk or coconut milk), roasted green gram (payaru), raisins, cashew nuts and few pods of cardamom.
When the meal is ready it is first served on a plantain leaf and the family prays together for a few minutes to thank nature, sun and the farmers who cultivated the crops for them.Then the meal (Pongal) is served with fruits (banana and mango) among the family. Later it will be shared with neighbours, friends and relatives.
The richness of Tamil culture and historical traditions is symbolized in the Thai Pongal festival. It is a joyous and happy occasion when the poor, the rich, the farmer, the villager all celebrate the harvest festival together irrespective of their individual faith.
By celebrating this festival the Tamils in diaspora help to perpetuate our rich culture, traditions, literary opulence, sublime philosophy and socio-economic aspirations.
The Third Day /Mattu Pongal
The third day known as ‘Mattu Pongal’ is dedicated to the cattle as cowherds and shepherds pay thanks to their cows and bulls, paint their horns and cover them with shining metal caps. They are fed ‘Pongal’ and tinkling bells are tied around their neck.
Cattle races are conducted and in the game called ‘Manji Virattu’ groups of young men chase running bulls. Bull fights called ‘Jallikattu’ are also arranged at some places where young men have to take the money bags tied to the horns of ferocious bulls single-handedly and without the use of arms.
In fact, in ancient Tamil literature, men had to subdue the bull in order to win the hand of a fair maiden .Unlike in the Spanish bullfights, in “Manji-Virattu”, the bull is never killed.
The Community Meal :
Everyone joins in the community meal, at which the food is made of the freshly harvested grain. This day is named and celebrated as “Tamilar Thirunal” in a fitting manner through out Tamil Nadu.
The Fourth Day /Kaanum Pongal :
Kaanum Pongal, which is celebrated on the final day, is a day for merry making, ensuing the worship on the first three days. Kaanum Pongal bears cultural significance apart from the religious aspect, of prayer and worship amidst celebrations on all the four days of Pongal. The term ‘Kaanum’ would mean ‘to see’. On this day people meet relatives and friends and feast together. They go on a picnic to the banks of River Cauvery or to nearby river banks. Prayers are offered to the waters of River Cauvery or attributing the waters of any river to River Cauvery, for irrigating the fields to enrich the crops.
It is that part of the festival when families used to gather on the riverbanks and have a sumptuous meal(kootanchoru).Kootanchoru is a medley of rice , lentils and all the available vegetables mixed & cooked together signifying , it takes many different types to make a family, each bringing it’s own flavor to the whole .
It is also time for some traditional dances such as kummi and kolattam.
This day marks as the sightseeing day. On this day, people dress up gaily, families go for picnic and visit relatives and make a tour of the town or the city they reside. It is a day for the outdoors and most people throng out of home in the evening, making for a sea of humanity. This is a day to spend time and entertainment outside.
Young girls are beautifully attired and on that day prospective grooms get to see brides to settle down in marriage.Unmarried girls are usually centered and women engage in Kummi, moving in a circular fashion, while singing the Kummi song.
A Kaanum Pongal Tradition:
Kaanu Pongal is also called “Kari Naal” and is not an auspicious day, hence seeking blessings from elders and forefathers ( believed to take the form of a crow in Indian culture) is an important part of a ritual before the day begins, to ward off any mishap that might occur in future.This day the women of the household are also blessed with Turmeric markings on their forehead to bless them for their future.
Red & yellow rice are prepared using turmeric & vermillion/kumkum on this day.The turmeric leaves are arranged on a kolam,and “pidis”/small balls made of leftover sarkarai pongal,curd rice, red & yellow rice are arranged on the turmeric leaves chanting, “Kakkai Pidi Vecchaen, Kannu Pidi Vecchaen,Kakka Kootam pol, Enga Kootam Kalayama irrukonum” ( meaning the family should stay united like the flock of crows ) and then the food is offered with betel leaves, nuts & sugarcane to the crows/birds and the Sun God with prayers for protection for all involved.
The significance of the Kaanu pongal is that the women of the house take a few moments to think about their brothers, the fun times that they have had with them and pray for the welfare of their brothers, who might be in different parts of the world.Brothers pay special tribute to their married sisters by giving gifts as affirmation of their filial love. Landlords present gifts of food, clothes and money to their tenants. Villagers visit relatives and friends while in the cities people flock to beaches and theme parks with their families. Celebrants chew sugar cane and again decorate their houses with kolam. Relatives and friends receive thanks for their assistance supporting the harvest.
Wishing each one of you a Happy Pongal, this coming week, many blessings!
Pictures and videos : Courtesy Net & youtube
Some of my links to previously published posts related to this Indian festival , Pongal are listed below for your interest :