“Pongal” is a four day long harvest festival celebrated in the South Indian states of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. It is also celebrated in other parts of world with presence of Tamil Diaspora – Sri Lanka, Malaysia, South Africa, Singapore, United States and Canada.
“Pongal” is also called as “Thai Pongal”, referring to tenth month in the Tamil Calendar. The four day long celebrations of “Pongal” have different activities assigned for each day and usually include thanking God and other elements for providing sustenance and livelihood.
Though “Pongal” is not a gazetted holiday in India, schools and colleges remain closed for all the four days and also no agriculture businesses remain closed during the festival.
“Pongal” is observed in other states of India as well, with different names; usually as a day’s celebration. In national capital Delhi and adjacent state of Haryana, it is celebrated as “Maghi”; in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar it is celebrated as “Khichri” and in state of Assam it is called “Magh Bihu”.
Pongal Festival 2019
“Pongal” or “Thai Pongal” 2019 will be celebrated from January 15th (Tuesday) to January 18th (Friday) 2019.
What Does “Pongal” Means?
“Pongal” in Tamil means to ‘over flow’ or to ‘spill over’. It is a reference to the rice dish which is customary prepared during the festival. A mix of rice, milk, jaggery, lentils, nuts etc is allowed to boil in an earthen pot till the contents get cooked and spilled outside the pot. The dish is then served to family and friends.
The custom of letting the dish spill over is to indicate abundance and is believed to bring prosperity.
History of Pongal Festival
Historical and epigraphic evidences suggest to the existence of “Pongal” even during Sangam period (5th Century BCE to 3rd Century CE) and during Medieval Chola Dynasty (up to 13th century CE).
During the Sangam era it was observed by the maidens by the name “Pavai Nonbu” in the Thai month of Tamil calendar. Young girls prayed for rain in hope of a good harvest and prosperity. For a month they refrained from consuming milk and milk products and also exercised caution to not to usher harsh words.
Epigraphic evidences suggest that during Medieval Chola dynasty the festival was celebrated as “Puthiyeedu”. There are also evidences to suggest land donations by Chola kings to temples as part of Pongal or Puthiyeedu celebrations.
Mythical Legends of Pongal Festival
Though there are many legends related to the origin of “Pongal”; two of them are given below. One of them is related to Lord Krishna and the worship of “Indra” in the festival. Another is related to Nandi and commemoration of cattle on “Pongal”.
It is believed that people started worshipping Indra, the God of rain and thunder. This instilled a sense of pride in him making him arrogant. Lord Krishna on sensing the arrogance of Indra, decided to teach him a lesson and started worshipping Mount Govardhan. This enraged Indra and he started pouring nonstop rain and thunder on earth. Now Krishna took the responsibility of protecting people and cattle by sheltering them under Mount Govardhan, balanced on his little finger for three days.
After three days, realizing his mistake “Indra” approached lord Krishna and asked for forgiveness. Conceding to the demands of “Indra” and taking pity on him, Krishna instructed the people to worship “Indra”; so, God Indra is worshipped on first day of “Pongal” festival.
Another story associated to “Pongal” is related to Lord Shiva and his Mount, Bull Nandi. Shiva sends Nandi on earth with a message for people that they should eat once in a month and take oil bath daily. But unfortunately, Nandi in haste to deliver his master’s message made a mistake of and instead told the people to eat daily and take bath once a month.
This carelessness by Nandi, angered Shiva and he cursed Nandi by ordering him to go back on earth and help the farmers in fields. This belief is a manifested in “Pongal” being celebrated as a harvest festival and the commemoration or decoration of cattle in Pongal.
When/Why is Pongal Festival Celebrated?
“Pongal” or “Thai Pongal” is a four days celebration, beginning on the day when Sun transits into Makara Rashi. Sun’s transit into Makara Rash marks the end of Winter Solstice and the beginning of longer and warmer days after a long winter.
As per the Tamil calendar “Pongal” begins on the last day of month Maargazhi and lasts for three days in to the month of Thai; hence, the name “Thai Pongal”.
How is Pongal Festival Celebrated?/Custom, Tradition and Significance
“Pongal” or “Thai Pongal” is a four days celebration, beginning on the last day of Tamil month of ‘Maargazhi’ and extending up to three days of month “Thai”. Every day has significance and a ritual associated with it. A description of all the four days celebrations and their respective names are given below.
1) Day 1 – Bhogi
The first day of “Pongal” is observed as “Bhogi”. This year in 2019, Bhogi will be celebrated on 14th January. And it is on this day as per the blessings of Krishna, Lord Indra is worshipped.
There is a custom to discard old belongings and bring new ones. People usually burn their old house hold items in a fire, at dawn. The preparations of the festival begin on the day with chorus like – house cleaning, painting and decoration.
Farmers paint the horns of cattle – cows, buffalos and oxen. They also smear their ploughs with sandalwood paste and with these sacred tools they cut the new harvested rice.
2) Day 2 – Thai Pongal
The second day constitutes the main day of Pongal celebrations. It corresponds to the Sun’s transition into Makara and the end of winter solstice. “Thai Pongal” is celebrated on the same date as “Kichri” in north India.
It is on this day that the “Pongal” dish is prepared and the contents of which are allowed to overflow resembling abundance and prosperity. When Pongal is cooked and its contents start spilling outside the pot; family members gather near it and shout “Pongalo Pongal” and “Thai Pirandhal Vazhi Pirakkum”; with the sound of a conch shell in background. The phrase “Thai Pirandhal Vazhi Pirakkum” loosely translates to – “May the beginning of Thai, opens new opportunities”. It is also customary to share the “Pongal” with your neighbors and friends.
Banana leaves are used for decorating houses and vehicles. Women of the house draw rangolis using rice flour. “Sun” is praised for its significance in generating harvest and sustaining life.
3) Day 3 – Maatu Pongal
The third day of “Maatu Pongal” is dedicated to cattle. Farmers celebrate the efforts of their cattle in bringing prosperity, food and livelihood and thank them by bathing and decorating them. Termeric and kumkum are used to decorate the foreheads of cows, buffalos and ox also oil is applied to the cows. Cattle are also fed “Pongal” and other delicacies like banana and jaggery etc.
Cooked rice, jaggery, boiled vegetables and fruits are left in open for the crows and other birds to feats. Indian deity Ganesha is worshipped on the day of “Mattu Pongal”. Many traditional games like Jallikkattu including cattle were being performed in villages, before Supreme Court of India banned it on 7th May 2014, on grounds of the custom being cruel to animals.
4) Kaanum Pongal
It is the last day of Pongal marking the end of festivities. “Kanum” in Tamil means – to visit. People visit their relatives and friends, presenting gifts and exchanging pleasantries. Married women are visited by their father or brother and receive gifts. It is also customary in Tamil Nadu to give new clothes and money to the maids on “Kaanum Pongal”. Many companies or employers give gifts to their employees to honor their hard work and honesty.
Basically it’s a day to lay back, relax, socialize and enjoy by exchanging joy; after three days of celebration. Families could be seen visiting parks and other places for picnic.
Activities for “Pongal” Festival
“Pongal” is a four day celebration and offers abundance of activities to be a part of celebrations. From performing pujas to decorations to preparing a festive meal and picnicking there is something for every age group and preference. A brief description of the activities that could be taken by you during the festival of “Pongal” is given below.
The festival of “Pongal” celebrates prosperity, so it is justified to discard your old belongings and make way for new ones. Don’t only get rid of materialistic belongings but also let go any evil thought or desire or vengeance, anger etc. Burn your old belongings in the bonfire along with feelings of hatred, anger, vengeance and also your past bitter experiences with someone; if any. Also resolve to be polite and gentle to everyone you meet.
Decoration constitutes an important part of any Hindu festival in India and “Pongal” is no exception. It doesn’t matter whether you are the owner of a house or a tenant, decorate the house you live in and also help other in decoration. Gather banana leafs, guava leafs, flowers and other articles to decorate your house entrance, rooms etc. Make rangolis if you can or at least help your mother or sister in making it. It is a common sight to people cleaning their vehicles and decorating them with banana leafs and kumkum; go on a clean and decorate the car or bike you own.
Pongal being a harvest season festival and related to Sun’s transition in to Makara rashi, also commemorates two important Hindu deities- Indra (The God of Rain and Thunder) and the Sun God. All the harvest, abundance and prosperity we owe to rains and Sun. With no rains and Sun there would be no harvest and hence no prosperity. It is therefore obligatory to extend your gratitude by thanking “Indra” and “Surya” for providing all the sustenance. Various other deities like Ganesha and Krishna could also be worshipped on the auspicious occasion of “Pongal”.
4) Cook “Pongal”
The celebrations of Pongal would be incomplete without “Pongal”. Not only the dish signifies a good harvest, but also the way it is cooked indicates prosperity and abundance. So cook “Pongal” with your family and friends and enjoy the meal. Gather all the necessities required to cook Pongal – rice, jaggery, lentils, cashew nuts, ground nuts etc and a fresh earthen pot. Do remember to cook the “Pongal” in wood fire like the old tradition. After the contents of the pot get spilled, shout – “Pongala Pongal” and “Thai Pirandhal Vazhi Pirakkum”; of course with your family and friends.
5) Feed Farm Animals and Birds
“Pongal” and other delicacies that are prepared are not only for self consumption but also for distributing among your neighbors, friends and relatives. It is a way to share your joy and also show your respect for others. It is a festival of harvest and also commemorates the farm cattle, so bathe your cattle and decorate it with color, kumkum and haldi as a mark of thanks giving. Also feed the animals and birds, the Pongal you cooked the day before and share the joy with them.
7) Reward your employees/house help
Pongal is a festival of joy and to thank other for their contribution; whether to sustain you like in the case of Sun and Indra or to helping you to grow – like your employees. Reward your employees or the people who help you with your house hold chorus. Give them money and other gifts as a token of their contribution and help.
8) Relax and Share The Joy
Stay relaxed and enjoy the day with your family and friends. Go out visit some place or a park and just sit down chatting with people you care for. Abstain from getting over occupied with some work and just enjoy the moments of togetherness with near and dear ones and cherish the moment.
Pongal in United States
On January 11 2017 the Virginia House of Delegates passed a joint resolution (HJ573) to observe January 14 every year as “Pongal Day” in Virginia. The resolution was a persistent effort by Democratic Party Delegate – David Bulova and was to commemorate the Indian American community for economic, social, educational and other contributions.