Tamil Nadu Pongal Festival Information

      The great diversity of Indian religious beliefs and the varied cultured traditions of the different states are very interesting and this is seen in the festival of Pongal.
May the pot of prosperity boil over May the Pongal that we cook, the fragrance of turmeric the taste of sugarcane, ginger and honey Bring the joy of Pongal into our homes May the blessings of the Sun God flood our lives.

      With many other verses like this the people of Tamil Nadu greet the great festival of Pongal celebrated all over the South as Makara Sankranti, in Tamil Nadu it has an additional significances as pongla welcomes the occasion of the incoming harvest.
The Puranas, usually prolific in legends connected with festivals, have little to say about this Pongal festival.  It is in all probability a Dravidian harvest festival that has survived the preponderant influence of the Indo-Aryan religion in the South.

      There is a beautiful Tamil composition of the ancient Sangam period which was known for the ancient Tamil Academics.  This charming composition describes the joy of love-borne young women on the return of her husband from the battlefield.  Her happiness is likened to the month before Pongal.  When, with the end of rains, the “kaya” flowers blossom, the tender ‘Konrai’ flowers shower their golden pollen on the ground, the white “kandal” flowers blossoms, the tender ‘Konrai’ plant is in full bloom and with receding clouds the female and male deer are making love in the fields.  This poem describes the mood of anticipation and excitement of the people in Tamil Nadu which gets its main rains from the north-eastern monsoon in October and November and the harvest is gathered in the period just preceding this Pongal festival.

      This festival of Pongal falls in the month of January after the winter solstice and as such this Pongal festival marks the favourable course of the Sun.  It is a three-day festival and the fourth days is a day for outdoors and excursions.  The first day is celebrated as the Bhoghi Pongal and is usually meant for domestic activities and of being together with the family members.  This first day is celebrated in honour 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.

      An interesting story is told that Indra, being worshipped by all on this day, became proud and arrogant Lord Krishna to teach him a lesson asked his shepherd friends to worship Mount Govardhan instead of Indra on Bhogi Pongal day.   Terribly enraged, Indra sent forth the seven clouds to bring forth thunder, lightning and heavy rains to cause deluge to destroy the shepherds.  But Lord Krishna lifted up the Govardhan Mountain under which the shepherds and their cattle got full shelter.  Then Indra begged Krishna’s forgiveness and once more Lord Krishna allowed Bhogi celebrations to continue in honour of Indra.  There is a beautiful carving at Mahabalipuram showing Krishna lifting Govardhan.

      On this day before sunrise a huge bonfire is lit in front of the houses and all the useless household things are thrown into the fire.  The burning of all that is old is symbolic of the starting of a fresh new year.  The bonfire is kept burning throughout the night while boys beat little drums known by the name “Bhogi Kottus”  made from the hides of buffaloes. 

      Homes are cleaned till they literally shine and are adorned with “Kolam” designs drawn with white paste of newly-harvested rice and outlines of the Kolam designs with red mud.  In villages yellow pumpkin flowers are set out in cow dung balls in the middle of the designs.  The harvest of rice, turmeric and sugarcane is brought in and kept ready for the next day’s festivities.

      The second day of Pongal is known as Surya Pongal and is dedicated to the Sun God.  On this day the granaries are full, sun shines brightly, trees are in full bloom, bird-songs resound in the air and hearts overflow with happiness that get translated into colorful and joyous celebrations.  A plank is placed on the ground and Kolam designs are drawn on its sides.  In the centre of the plank is drawn a large figure of the Sun God with his effulgent rays.  The “Puja” of the Sun God starts after the auspicious moment of the birth of the new month Thai. Prayers are rendered to the Sun God to seek his benedictions. 

      The word ‘Pongal’ literally has two connotations.  Firstly it is the name of the special dish cooked on this day and secondly the word “Ponga” means “boil”.   So the word ‘Pongal’ means that which is overflowing.  The Preparation of this special dish needs a new mud-pot called Pongapanai on which artistic designs are drawn.  The village fair where these pots of different shapes and designs are sold is truly an aesthetic treat for the eyes to behold as also the specially set up the colorful sugarcane markets.  While the ‘Puja’ is being performed, the neck of the Pongapannai is tied with fresh turmeric and fresh ginger saplings with tender green leaves.  The green leaves are symbolic of prosperity, the turmeric of auspiciousness, and ginger for the spice of life.  The special dish called “Sarkkarai Pongal” is cooked in this mud-pot.  After the rituals of puja are over “Sarkkarai Pongal” with sticks of sugarcane is offered to the Sun god as a thanks giving for the plentiful harvest.  Sugarcane that is offered is symbolic for sweetness and happiness in life.  It is said that on this day Lord Sundareshwar in the Mudurai temple performed a miracle and breathed life into a stone elephant that could eat sugarcane.  The carving of this event is in Meenakshi temple.  From this month of Thai starts the marriage season in Tamil Nadu.

      The third day is Mattu Pongal which is the festival of cattle.  To the village people cow, the giver of milk and the bull which draws the plough in the fields are very valuable and therefore the farmers honour their dumb friends by celebrating it as a day of thanks-giving to them.  The cattle are bathed, their horns are painted and covered with shining metal caps.  Multi-coloured beads, tinkling bells, sheafs of corn and flower garlands are tied around their necks.  They are fed with pongal and taken to the village centres.  The resounding of their bells attract the villagers as the young men race each other’s cattle.  The entire atmosphere becomes festive and full of fun and revelry.  Big commotion is seen when the game “Manji Virattu” starts in which groups of young men chase the running bulls.

      In some places a “Jallikattu” is arranged.  It is a bull-fight in which money bags are tied to the horns of ferocious bulls and unarmed young men are asked to wrest them from the bull’s horns. On the Mattu Pongal day Lord Ganesh and Goddess Parvati are worshipped and Pongal is offered to them in the ‘puja’.

      This day is also known by the name of Kanum Pongal when coloured balls of cooked rice are placed in the open air by girls for the birds and crows to eat.  With each ball of rice that the sister makes she prays for her brother’s happiness and the brothers and sisters wherever they may be remember each other.

      Community dinners are also held when rich and poor, the landlord and the peasant, the old and the young, women and children all dine together forgetting the distinction of caste or class.  All share in the spirit of bonhomie (celebrations).

      Pongal is a festival when god is praised with a simple faith and sincerity.  Old vices are all washed out and washed out and all that is good is welcomed in the forth coming New Year.  This festival is of all living things, of man, his beast and his crop and of the birds that fly in the sky making man look up to the heaven in joy and thankfulness to God for everything that He gives to man specially peace and happiness and the feeling of brotherhood.