Pongal Festival of India
Celebrated almost at the same time when ‘Lohri’ and ‘Makar Sankranti’ are celebrated in the north, Pongal is the most popular festival of the Tamilians. A harvest festival honouring the Sun God and the Lord of Rains, Indra, Pongal also symbolizes a thanks-giving festival for the plentiful paddy crop that the farmer has harvested during the mild winter months in South India.
Literally meaning ‘boiling over’ signifying the advent of prosperity, Pongal is normally celebrated over a period of four days, starting on 13th January. Since the calculation to determine this day is based on the solar calendar, the date doesn’t change. It is considered a very auspicious occasion when the Sun transits the Capricorn sign, heralding the advent of the Sun’s northwards tilt or ‘Uttarayana’. This occasion is rated so highly in the Indian ethos that according to the Mahabharat, having survived on the bed of arrows for about one and half months, Bhishma Pitamah the grandsire had not accepted to die before the Sun getting into Makar (Capricom) sign. As may be known, he had received from his father the boon of “Icchha Mrityu (dying at will).
Pongal is celebrated with unbriddled enthusiasm in South. Though Pongal festivities normally last for four days, some households celebrate it for three days only. Also, there may be a slight difference in the rituals and rites followed by the Brahmans and the people of other Castes. Nevertheless, all farmers intermingle with the other members of the neighbouring families. Each farmer contributes his share, in one way or the other, during the six months preceding the festival when the Sun remains ‘Dakshinayan’ (tilting towards the south). This is the time for sowing of seeds and saplings and also for cultivating short-term crops. A rich and abundant harvest of paddy and other crops dependent on a required quantity of rainfall at the right time, as the rivers in Tamil Nadu are not perennial. Hence the invocation of the Sun God and the God of Rain at the time of Pongal. India being too dependent on agriculture, its all festivals have a solid agricultural reason enshrined in them.
As is customary, cleaning of every house a few days prior to the Pongal festival is an indispensable ritual. Not only every house is cleaned, it is also whitewashed and dusted. In the north, this ritual is observed at the time of Deepavali. In south, all broken and dented utensils are exchanged for the new ones. New mats are also bought, replacing the old and tattered ones. Since sleeping on mats is a normal custom in the south, this ritual has much significance. It means changing your bed Rugs are taken out and beaten with sticks to get the dust out, or they are drycleaned or washed at home. The houses in south are generally kept spotlessly clean, with the minimum of furniture. It is customary in South to enter the house with your footwear off.
Wearing new clothes on Pongal is also customary. In fact it is an Indian heritage to be attired in your best ensemble when celebrating a festival. Attired in a new ‘lehanga’ and half sari (known as ‘dhavini’) for young girls and lungi and angavastram (cotton or silk shawl with ‘Zari’ border thrown over one shoulder) the men, women and children prepare themselves to celebrate the first day called Bhogi Pendigai.
The first day is dedicated to Indra who is also called ‘Bhogi’. It is believed that on this day Lord Krishna had urged the people to neglect him and not worship him. Whereupon Indra showed his wrath but by lifting the Goverdhan, Lord Krishna had protected the people from Indra’s rage. Later on Indra, thoroughly overwhelmed apologised profusely and sought Lord Krishna’s forgiveness. Then Lord Krishna relented and allowed people to continue worshipping Indra’.
On this day, all members of a house assemble to celebrate the occasion. Early in the morning they rise and take oil bath first usually til oil is rubbed onto all parts of the body including the head which results in satisfying massage of the entire body ensuring good blood circulation. Using til-oil is recommended on this day by astrological considerations. Next, the persons takes a good bath with water and Shikakai (trods of a particular tree supposed to be very good for cleaning the head hair with; an indigenous shampoo) or any other preparation that the mother or grand mother would have made to enrich the skin and make whole body supple and smooth.
Since all Indian festivals are basically related to agriculture, on this day the farmers bring their yield to the place where it is stored before being utilized or sold. This day’s function has a close similarity with the north Indian festival, Holi’s eve celebration since both in villages and towns everyone collects the old items that have outlined their utility like tattered mats, rugs, files and clothes and burn them in a bonfire night in the courtyard or open space. The children dance round the bonfire, beating the drums especially made for this occasion called ‘Bogi Kottu’. Around this time of year, trees are beginning to put out new leaves and flowers. Similarly, people want to make a new beginning. By cleaning and brightening one’s surroundings, it is possible to brighten and improve one’s outlook on life also.
In the evening, using rice paste, ‘Kolam’ is drawn with the paste of newly harvested rice. The inner boundary of every room is decorated with red Kolam powder diluted with water. The Kolam is supposed to represent the Sun. Then celebrating Bhogi around the bonfire, everyone enjoys the warmth symbolizing the gift of the sun. This day is the last day of the month “Maargazhi” the ninth month of the lunar calendar for the Tamilians which is equivalent to Margsheersha in the northern lumar calendar. The following items should be arranged to celebrate Pongal : sandalwood paste, vermilion, mango leaves and saplings; coconut fronds, sugarcane leaves and aplings, banana leaves and plants, ginger pieces, white flour and other colours to make different coloured powders, new vessels of brass (known as ‘Vengalapanai’) or mud, turmeric powder, a ‘thali’ or metal plate in which the sun is viewed (the reflection).
Next day is the first day of the next Tamilian month known as ‘Thai’, equivalent to the north Indian lunar month of Magh which almost invariably falls on 14th January. In this day, the outside of the house is decorated with strings of mango leaves tied neatly with the stems tucked inwards to form a loop, creating an exquisite green chain. Such mango-leaf strings are tied across all doorways or around pillars. The banana and sugar cane plants and coconut fronds are stood against gateways, large doorways and pillars to form green archways. Marigolds stung up in threads are tied alongside this greenery and lend colour and freshness to the decoration. The floors of the rooms and Verandas are also decorated with Kolam if not done earlier. Culturally rich as south India is, these patterns virtually convert the home into an art gallery.
After an early bath, new clothes are downed with every house becoming the hubbub of many simultaneous activities. New items are set in place if not already there. Everyone admires the new acquisitions and a general atmosphere of gaiety prevails. Dinner on that evening is always a gala occasion with relatives, friends and other acquaintances joining it. The special vessel of brass or mud is decorated with mango leaves, ginger saplings, fresh turmeric leaves with pod/stalk and sugarcane pieces tied around its neck in a string. The vessel itself is decorated with vermilion and haldi dots. The vessel and its contents are placed on the fire in a very clean and neat kitchen by the daughter-in-law or the lady of the house. Servants and any outsider is not allowed to perform this ritual of starting the cooking of the consecrated preparations. The dishes prepared on this day are of two varieties: the salty one is known as ‘ven pongal’ and the sweet one made with jaggery is called ‘chakkarai pongal’. The milk is boiled and some newly harvested rice and jaggery are added to it. After this rice-jaggery mix is cooked, spices are added for taste and flavour and after performing puja, it is ceremonially offered to the Sun God. Any pot in which Pongal is cooked becomes the Pongal Panai. Turmeric plants or pods are tied around the neck of pots since turmeric is not only considered very auspicious, it is medically very useful also as its presence takes care of the harmful bacterias owing to its inherent anti-septic qualities.
After the ceremonial worship ‘Pongal’ is brought on a small plate and ceremonially offered to the Sun God. Then comes the long awaited moment – distribution of Sarkkarai Pongal. On this occasion whosoever visits any one the question asked invariably is ‘Paal Pongitra?” which means in Tamil ‘has the milk boiled over (in your house)? This is the way people greet each other on Pongal day. The boiling over of milk with rice is supposed to symbolize plenty and prosperity. In fact the word ‘Pongal’ itself means ‘overflowing’ again underlying the fact that Pongal is a festival to signify the (desire for) the advent of prosperity in every house.
On Pongal Day, the granaries are full, the sun shines brightly, trees are in full bloom, bird-song fills the air and everyone’s heart overflows with happiness. This happiness is translated into colourful celebrations.
On the morrow of the Pongal Day is witnessed a typical race of the decorated bulls (Manji Virattu) which are beautifully decorated by their owners and then driven into open with money-bags tied around their necks. Anyone who manages to catch the bulls can claim these bags.
In fact, this day, Mattu Pongal is a day of thanks giving to the cattle which have served the men and their families throughout the year. The bulls are driven with the special sticks called ‘Adalikkombu’.
On the Pongal Day a special ritual is also observed. The sun is seen through the fingers entrained in a particular way so that the rays donot reach the eyes; or the sun is seen in a ‘thali’ full of water with turmeric and vermilion. This ‘Pujan’ is exclusively confirmed to the sun god outdoors. Neither any image of any element, nor any planet is worshipped in the home. We do find the images of the ‘Navagrahas’ (the nine planets) and people pray to them to ward off their evil effect, but puja is not offered to them inside the house.
The fourth day falls on 17 January. It is the last day of Pongal and is known as Kanuum Pongal. It is generally believed to be the period of rest. On this day, nothing new is started as it is believed to be inauspicious (Karinaal). On this day people prefer to indulge in sight-seeing and whirling away their time in merry-making. Some communities also go in for gambling like in the north people do on Diwali day.
The fifth or last day of Pongal celebrations is called Kanya Pongal when different preparations of rice and curd are kept on banana leaves or on leaves from the turmeric plant. Then the whole thing is left in the open so that the birds, squirrels and ants may also get the taste of the newly harvested rice. This ritual is reminder of the essential spirit behind these festivals consideration for all animate and inanimate objects and being of this world. It is this spirit that burgeous the concept of ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’. Let our children get inculcated with this concept right from the beginning.
On this day, married women alongwith their spouse and families are invited by their parents or brothers for a grand lunch in the afternoon. The women pray to the Almighty for the long lives and prosperity of their parents and brothers. On this day the brothers give presents or gifts to their sisters. Normally, sisters receive cash as gifts while the mother can al can also give in kind. This day is akin to the Bhaiyya Dooj (the second day after Diwali) festival in the northern part. In fact if one delves deeply one learns that most of the festivals celebrated on a particular day or period in the year all over the country have a common stream of unity running underneath to symbolize the binding thread of solidarity in the cultural ethos. A geographical tract of a region of the world becomes one not by the rule of authority but by these invisible threads of cultural unity.
The famous dishes prepared ceremonially during these five days include the ‘Pongal Sarkkarai’ (a sweet dish prepared with mixing jaggery, rice and milk), Dosai and Sambhar.