Pongal Celebrations

According to Hindu mythology, this is when the day of the gods begins, after a six-month long night. The festival is spread over three days and is the most important and most fervently-celebrated harvest festival of South India. A special puja is performed on the first day of Pongal before the cutting of the paddy. Farmers worship the sun and the earth by anointing their ploughs and sickles with sandal wood paste. It is with these consecrated tools that the newly-harvested rice is cut.

Each of the three days are marked by different festivities. The first day, Bhogi Pongal, is a day for the family. Surya Pongal, the second day, is dedicated to the worship of Surya, the Sun God. Boiled milk and jaggery is offered to the Sun God. The third day of Pongal, Mattu Pongal, is for worship of the cattle known as Mattu. Cattle are bathed, their horns polished and painted in bright colors, and garlands of flowers placed around their necks. The Pongal that has been offered to the Gods is then given to cattle and birds to eat.

What is Pongal?
Pongal is the only festival of Hindu 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.

In Hindu temples bells, drums, clarinets and conch shells herald the joyous occasion of Pongal. To symbolize a bountiful harvest, rice is cooked in new pots until they boil over. Some of the rituals performed in the temple include the preparation of rice, the chanting of prayers and the offering of vegetables, sugar cane and spices to the gods. Devotees then consume the offerings to exonerate themselves of past sins.

Pongal signals the end of the traditional farming season, giving farmers a break from their monotonous routine. Farmers also perform puja to some crops, signaling the end of the traditional farming season. It also sets the pace for a series of festivals to follow in a calendar year. In fact, four festivals are celebrated in Tamil Nadu for four consecutive days in that week. ‘Bogi ‘is celebrated on January 13,’ Pongal ‘on Jan 14,’ Maattuppongal on Jan 15 and ‘Thiruvalluvar Day’ on Jan 16.

The festival is celebrated for four days. On, the first day, Bhogi, the old clothes and materials are thrown away and fired, marking the beginning of a new life. The second day, the 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. People also prepare savories and sweets, visit each other’s homes, and exchange greetings. The third day, Mattu Pongal, is meant to offer thanks to the cows and buffaloes, as they are used to plough the lands. On the last day, Kanum Pongal, people go out to picnic.

 

A festival called Jalli kathu is held in Madurai, Tiruchirapalli and Tanjavur,all in Tamil Nadu, on this day. Bundles of money are tied to the horns of Pongal ferocious bulls which the villagers try to retrieve. Everyone joins in the community meal, at which the food is made of the freshly harvested grain. This day is named and celebrated as Tamilian Tirunal in a fitting manner through out Tamil Nadu.

Thus, the harvest festival of Pongal symbolizes the veneration of the first fruit. The crop is harvested only after a certain time of the year, and cutting the crop before that time is strictly prohibited. Even though Pongal was originally a festival for the farming community, today it is celebrated by all. In south India, all three days of Pongal are considered important. However, those south Indians who have settled in the north usually celebrate only the second day. Coinciding with Makara Sankranti and Lohri of the north, it is also called Pongal Sankranti.

 
 
Traditions & Customs
In spite of immense urbanization, the traditions and customs attached to the harvest festival of Pongal has not diminished. Though the nature of these tradition and customs has changed, the glitter of this festival has not dimmed. The fast changing times notwithstanding, certain things do not change. The way we celebrate the festivals, for instance. The festival of Pongal captures the quintessence of south Indian culture in all its entirety and traditional practices and customs continue to hold their own even today.
The spirit is alive and Pongal is still treated as a time to discard the old and welcome the new. The new crop that is harvested is cooked and offered to the Almighty. Celebrated for four days, the various traditions and customs of this harvest festival are:
Bhogi Pongal
The first day of Pongal known as ‘Bhogi Pongal’ is a day for family gathering and is dedicated to Lord Indra, the king of the deities and God of the Clouds and Rains. Offerings are made to him to please him so that he blesses us for the plentiful harvest. It is also the beginning of the New Year according to the Malayalam calendar and before sunrise, a huge bonfire of useless things in home is lit that is kept burning throughout the night. All the time, boys beat little buffalo-hide drums known as ‘Bhogi Kottus’. The houses are then cleaned till they shine and are decorated with Kolams painted using rice four. There are yellow pumpkin flowers are set in cow-dung balls in the middle of these designs.
Surya Pongal
The second day of Pongal known as ‘Surya Pongal’ is dedicated to the Sun God. The granaries are kept full on this day and Sun God with his rays are painted on a plank as he is worshiped with the birth of the new auspicious month of Thai. Since the word ‘Ponga’ means ‘to boil’ representing plentiful and excess yield, a special dish is cooked on this day in a new mud-pot that comes in innovative shapes and have artistic designs on them called ‘Pongapani’. The special dish is called ‘Sarkkarai Pongal’ and is offered to Sun God with sugarcane sticks. It is said that Lord Sundareshwar performed a miracle on this day in the Madurai temple and breathed life into a stone elephant who ate sugarcanes. One can see the depiction of the event in the Meenakshi temple.
 
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. Lord Ganesha and Goddess Parvati are also worshiped on this day. At some other places, this day is celebrated as Kanu Pongal when girls feed colored balls of cooked rice to the birds and crows and pray for their brothers’ happiness and that they always remember them.
Kaanum Pongal
The fourth day is termed as Kaanum Pongal. On this day, people travel to see other family members. On this day, the younger members of the family pay homage to the elders, and the elders thank them by giving token money. Another thing many do is leave food out on banana leaves for birds to take. Many South Indian people will take the first bit of rice cooked in any given day and set it outside for the crows to take, so this is not necessarily a habit only for Pongal.
Regional Significance
The harvest festival of Pongal has its unique regional significance. The festival of Pongal is celebrated all over India on the same day, but has different names in each region. However, being a harvest festival, bonfires and feasts are the main thing common to all the celebrations of this festival. Almost all the states of India celebrate this festival with varied festivities including singing and dancing. In northern India, the festival is known as Lohri while in Assam it is called Bhogali Bihu, in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar it is known as Sankranti, and in Andhra Pradesh it is celebrated as Bhogi, when each household puts on display its collection of dolls. Following is the state wise regional significance of the Pongal festival.
Pongal in Maharashtra
In Maharashtra, January 14 is celebrated as a festival of Makar Sankranti and is marked by the flying of kites. The entire sky becomes a showcase of colorful kites of various sizes and shapes. On this day, people exchange homemade delicacies like til and gur laddoos and wish each other the sweetness of speech, throughout the year just the way the gur tastes.
 
A newly wed woman gives away oil, cotton and sesame seeds to mark the auspicious day of Makar Sankranti. This is believed to bestow upon her and her family long life and prosperity. The women wear new clothes, new glass bangles, and relatives are invited to attend the Haldi Kumkum celebration to welcome the new bride into their family.
 
Pongal in Gujarat
In Gujarat, Pongal day is celebrated as Makar Sankranti. Here, kite-flying is a major event for this day. Traditionally celebrated on the 13th or 14th January, it is a day when every family can be seen outdoors ‘cutting’ each other’s kites. Kites of myriad hues, shapes and sizes decorate the skies from dawn to dusk during this festival. The vast panorama of the sky dotted with thousand of kites becomes a wonderful sight to see.
The International Kite Festival is held at the capital city Ahmedabad on January 14 to coincide with the festival of Uttarayan or Makar Sankranti. The people of Gujarat celebrate Uttarayan with a lot of enthusiasm and all business comes to a grinding halt for 3 to 4 days. It is also a celebration to mark the end of winter. The excitement does not end with nightfall, which is the time for illuminated box kites, often in a series strung on one line, to be launched into the sky. Known as "tukals", these add a touch of splendor to the dark sky.
Pongal in Uttar Pradesh
In Uttar Pradesh, the day of Pongal is celebrated as Makar Sankranti. Here, taking a ritual bath in the river is considered mandatory on this day. According to a popular belief in the hills of Uttar Pradesh, a person who does not take a bath on this auspicious day will be born as a donkey in his next birth. Apart from this ritual bathing, donating khichri (a cooked mixture of rice and lentils) is also one of the important aspects of the Makar Sankranti celebration in Uttar Pradesh.
To mark the occasion of Makar Sankranti, a big mela or fair is also organized at the Triveni Sangam in Allahabad. As the mela is held in the beginning of the month of Magha, this fair is named as Magha Mela. Apart from Triveni, ritual bathing is also organized at places like Haridwar and Garh Mukteshwar in Uttar Pradesh. Many kite-flying competitions are also held in various localities to mark the occasion.
Pongal in Andhra Pradesh
In Andhra Pradesh, Pongal celebrations start a month in advance. Bhogi is the day preceding Sankranti and Kanumu is the day after. On Bhogi day, in the early morning, a bonfire is lit up with waste before the traditional special bath. Pongali (rice pudding with milk) is an important item during this festival. Special dishes, like ariselu (sweet rice cakes), are prepared. On Kanumu day animals are decorated and races are held, sometimes the banned cockfights, bullfights and ram fights are included. Sun, Mahabali (a mythological Dravidian king) and Godadevi (Goddess Goda) are worshiped during this harvest festival.
 
Pongal in Karnataka
In Karnataka, the festival is called ‘Sankranti’, and cows and bullocks are gaily decorated and fed ‘Pongal’- a sweet preparation of rice. Special prayers are offered in the temples and houses. In the evening, the cattle are led out in procession to the beat of drums and music. In the night a bonfire is lit and the animals are made to jump over the fire.
Makar Sankranti is marked by men, women and children wearing colorful clothing; visiting near and dear ones; and exchanging pieces of sugarcane, a mixture of fried til, molasses, pieces of dry coconut, peanuts and fried gram. The significance of this exchange is that sweetness should prevail in all the dealings.
In Karnataka, an interesting tradition is followed. After the pujas, white sesame (ellu) mixed with pieces of jaggery, peanuts, dry coconut and sugar blocks (shakkare achchu) are exchanged. At Gavi Gangadhareshwara (Siva) temple in Bangalore’s Gavipuram, a rare phenomenon is witnessed in the evening. The Sun’s rays pass through the horns of the Nandi briefly to fall on the Lingam in the sanctum. It is an architectural marvel.
 
Pongal in Tamil Nadu
Pongal in Tamil Nadu is celebrated to mark the withdrawal of the southeast monsoons as well as the reaping of the harvest. Pongal is strictly a rural festival. The Sun is worshiped for its rays are responsible for life on earth. It is the biggest harvest festival, spread over four days. The name of the festival is derived from Pongal, a rice pudding made from freshly harvested rice, milk and jaggery.
The first day, Bhogi Pongal, is a day for the family. Surya Pongal, the second day, is dedicated to the worship of Surya, the Sun God. The third day, Mattu pongal is for worship of the cattle. In Madurai, Tanjore and Tiruchirrapalli, where Pongal is known as Jellikattu, bundles of money are tied to the horns of bulls and villagers try and wrest the bundles from them. Community meals are made from the freshly gathered harvest and enjoyed by the entire village.
Pongal in Kerala
In Kerala, on Makar Sankranti evening, at the hill shrine of Sabarimala, lakhs of pilgrims witness a star-like celestial light of incredible splendor appearing on the horizon. Known as Makara Jyothi, this miracle occurs at the time of the evening Deeparadhana. Pilgrims consider it a great moment of fulfillment. Lord Ayyappa is adorned with special jewels known as Thiruvaabharanam. Legend has it that these jewels were donated to the Lord by the erstwhile Pandalam Maharaja, considered the foster father of the Lord.
 

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