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.
As all Indian festivals Pongal to, have interesting legends associated to it. Originated as a Dravidian harvest festival, it has found no mention in Indo-Aryan Puranas. According to the popular legend, the first day of the festival known as Bhogi Pongal was once dedicated to Lord Indra. The child Krishna came to know of the pride and arrogance of Indra on being the king of the deities and that he thought himself to be the most powerful of all the beings. He thought of a plan to teach him a lesson. When, as usual, his father an other villagers who were cowherds by profession, were preparing for the festival and offerings to Indra, Krishna objected and persuaded them to worship Mt Govardhan instead, as it gave them fodder for their cattle. When Indra came to know of this, he considered it a insult done to him by the villagers and sent thunderous pours, storms and lightning to drown them and punish them. However, Lord Krishna had lifted up the Govardhan Mountain on his little finger to protect the cowherds and their cattle. The rains continued for three days and at last Indra realized his mistake and divine power of Lord Krishna. He promised humility and begged Krishna’s forgiveness. Since then, Krishna allowed to let the Bhogi celebrations continue in honor of Indra. From that time onwards Pongal is celebrated.Another legend associated to the third day of Pongal known as Mattu Pongal involves Lord Shiva and his mount, Nandi the bull. It is believed that Lord Shiva once ordered Nandi to go to the Earth and deliver his message to the people that they should take oil bath every day and eat food once a month. However, the dozing Nandi could not hear the message right and told the people to eat everyday and take oil bath once a month. Shiva was angry and said that due to his folly, there will be lack of grains on the Earth and so he would have to remain on Earth to help humans plough the fields. Mattu Pongal is also known as Kanu Pongal and is in many ways resemble the festivals of Raksha Bandhan and Bhai Dooj of North India.
History of Pongal
The history of Pongal can be traced back to the Sangam Age, ie, 200 B.C. to 300 A.D. Pongal is an ancient festival of the Tamils and it is not known when exactly the Tamils began celebrating the festival, but some historians identify it with the Thai Un and Thai Niradal, believed to have been celebrated during the Sangam Age. Pongal, a traditional Tamilian food item that has found a place in the menu of Indian restaurants across the world, is perhaps the only dish to have lent its name to a festival. As part of the festivities, maidens of the Sangam era observed penance during the Tamil month of Margazhi (December-January). Throughout the month, they avoided milk and milk products. They would not oil their hair and refrained from using harsh words while speaking. The women had their ceremonial baths early in the morning.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. According to a legend, once Shiva asked his bull, Basava, to go to the earth and ask the mortals to have an oil massage and bath every day and to eat once a month. Inadvertently, Basava announced that everyone should eat daily and have an oil bath once a month. This mistake enraged Shiva who then cursed Basava, banishing him to live on the earth forever. He would have to plough the fields and help people produce more food. Thus cattles are associated with this day. 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.
The Tempting Recipes
Sweet rice, known as “Pongal”, is cooked in a new earthenware pot at the same place where puja is to be performed. Fresh turmeric and ginger are tied around this pot. Then a delicious concoction of rice, Moong Dal, jaggery and milk are boiled in the pot on an open fire. This Pongal, according to ritual, is allowed to boil and spill out of the pot. Pongal, once ready, is offered to God first, on a new banana leaf along with other traditional delicacies like Vadas, Payasam, etc. Besides this, sugarcane, grain, sweet potatoes, etc are also offered to the Sun God.