Pongal or Thai Pongal as it is usually called, is the harvest festival of Tamil Nadu, in honor of the Sun God, Surya. It is the starting of the Tamil month of “Thai” (hence the name Thai Pongal) and the Malayalam month of Markam. Pongal usually falls around the 13th to the 15th of January. This day is timed according to winter solstice, which is the day on which the north pole is the farthest from the sun. Pongal is celebrated on the same day as Makara Sankranthi day which is celebrated all over India as the winter harvest festival.
In 2017, Thai Pongal is being celebrated on the 14th of January in India and other countries, including the United States.
Pongal is actually a festival celebrated over three days – Bhogi, Thai Pongal and Maatu Pongal or Kanu. Bhogi is the day before Thai Pongal (13th January) and Maatu Pongal or Kanu is the day after Thai Pongal (15th January).
On this day, the offerings to the God prepared with rice is called Pongal, and hence the name of the festival.
The Hindu calendar splits the Gregorian year into two halves – the Utharayanam (the first six months) and the Dakshinayanam (the last six months). This partition is based on the movement of the Sun; during the first half of the year, the Sun travels from the North to the South, and during the second half of the year, the Sun travels from the South to the North. Of course, this is relative to the Earth, although it is the Earth’s orbit around the Sun that makes it appear that way. Thai Pongal falls on the day that Utharayanam starts, that is, the winter solstice day thereby marking it as the winter harvest festival.
According to Hindu mythology, one year for humans is equal to one day for the Gods. Hence, Utharayanam is the day for the Gods and Dakshniyanam is the night for the Gods, and since they are awake during the Utharayanam period, they will witness whatever we do and bless us with good crops and prosperity. Hence the significance of Pongal as a harvest festival, as the first harvest is done. The Pongal festival is in honor of the Sun God, Surya, as He is the one responsible for the harvest, and farmers offer the first harvest to Him.
Pongal refers to the rising movement. During the festival, rice is cooked with milk and water in a pot, Pongal Paanai, and the rice and milk will keep boiling over and rise in the vessel. The Pongal term refers to this rising, and the rising symbolizes abundance and prosperity.
I got the following in a forward and thought it best to paste it as is
Makar Sankranti is celebrated in different states of nation with different names. In Tamil Nadu it is called Pongal. In Assam it is celebrated as Magh Bihu and Bhogal Bihu. In states of Punjab and Haryana it is celebrated as Lohri festival. In Uttar Pradesh it is celebrated as Khichdi or Donation festival. In Bihar it is known as Til Sankranti or Khichdi festival. In Marathi culture, on Makar Sankranti day people exchange grains of multicolored sugar balls and fried til (sesame) mixed with molasses (til gul).
In many regions in Maharashtra people wear black colored dress on Makar Sankranti day. As per Hindu customs and traditions, it is inauspicious to wear black but since it is winter black is worn on the day to keep the body warm. A lot of importance is given to til (sesame seeds) due to the same reason. Sesame seeds (Til) are used to combat the cold in winter, as sesame contains oil which is healthy. This once again proves the wisdom of ancient Hindus who insisted on a particular type of food during a particular season.
So friends, relatives and neighbors exchange Til Gul on the day and say “til gud ghya, god god bola” meaning “let there be only friendship and good thoughts between us”.
Another major highlight on the day is kite flying. During the season colorful kites dot the skies in the region.
This is the day before Thai Pongal. On this day, people discard old and unwanted things and home and prepare the house and their lives for the new harvest and new beginnings. People clean their houses, paint them and decorate them in a festive manner with Vaazha Ilai (Plantain leaves) and Maav Ilai (Mango Tree leaves). On this day, in villages, they even paint the horns of buffaloes and oxen and other cattle and prepare for Maatu Pongal. On this night, people clean the frontyard of the house with cowdung and water and draw kolams or rangoli designs with rice flour alongside illustrations of sugarcane and the rice pot in which they cook the food, to prepare for the next day, Thai Pongal.
Being the main day of the festival, people buy new clothes and new things for their home. In the earlier days, in the villages, the farmers would have got their first harvest and with that money, they would buy new clothes for their families. And that is how the habit of buying new things stuck on.
The place where the stove is kept in the house is also decorated with kolam or rangoli. The pot, Pongal Paanai, will also be decorated beautifully, with manjal (turmeric) and kum kum (vermillion) and tender turmeric pieces will be tied to the neck of the pot. The Pongal (rice) is prepared in this pot. While cooking in this pot, the rice will keep rising and during that time, all the members of the house will happily say in unison, “Pongalo Pongal. Pongalo Pongal” and celebrate and pray for abundance and prosperity. Then the eldest female member of the house will do the pooja to the Sun and offer the neivedhyams. Everyone will visit temples to thank the Gods and also have an elaborate feast with the first harvest and celebrate with friends and relatives.
Maatu Pongal is the day following Thai Pongal. This day honors the cattle, as they are the main helpers for the farmer’s harvest crops. So, on this day the farmers thank their cattle and celebrate with them. The farmers would have painted the horns of the bulls and cows earlier, during Bhogi, and tie bells around the necks of the bulls and also put flower garlands around the necks. The bullock carts are also painted and decorated. The cows are bathed thoroughly and are decorate with kum kum (vermillion) on the forehead and the body and are worshipped with flower garlands. The farmers also prepare pongal (rice) for the cattle and feed them that. They also feed the cattle bananas.
Jalli Kattu: In villages they play a sport called Jalli Kattu in which the man participating, the matador, should embrace or tame the bull. This is a centuries old tradition that actually has a lot of history and significance behind it, especially the selection and rearing of the native breeds of bulls etc. So this is a very important festival for farmers and villagers and helps raise funds for the farmers to help with the upkeep of the bulls and their farms. This sport is also used to show the heroism of young men in villages. In olden days, it is believed that girls chose their grooms based on this game. The bull is not killed or harmed in any manner (as they are considered sared) and the matadors in this game should not use weapons. Currently there is a huge debate on whether this sport should be banned or not and as of today, the Supreme Court of India has banned Jallikattu due to the pressure by PETA but there are several groups and communities fighting to remove the ban. There is a wide misconception about Jallikattu that the bulls are treated harshly etc. But ironically, that is not true, and in this sport actually the bulls are respected and loved; although some exceptions are there where the bull has been agonized. Generally farmers in India treat their cows and bulls and other cattle as part of their family. So there is no cruelty involved, in most instances, and there is a huge belief that the whole banning this a conspiracy to bring in artificial breeds (as they yield more milk they seem lucrative, however are not healthy) and wipe out the native breed of bulls. This claim can very well be true especially if you read through history and the introduction of artificial or genetically modified or hormone boosted breeds of cows. I am against cruelty to animals but I believe that the sport be regulated to ensure safety of animals and humans while playing the sport. I am also against introduction of genetic modification and artificially produced breeds. Hence, I am not exactly supporting Jallikattu as is, I would support regulations for it and make it a sport where there’s no harm involved. But more than anything, I support native breeds and I believe we should all come up with ways to make funds to provide for the farmers to encourage them to continue breeding the native bulls.
(Note: The milk of native breeds of cows and bulls is the only healthiest, unadulterated milk that does not cause any bad side effects and diseases. However, the milk of all the artificial breeds are laden with hormones and lead to several diseases like lactose intolerance, cancer, diabetes etc. Incidentally, I know several people, who are “lactose intolerant”, drink the milk of native breeds as that is the only milk that does not induce any symptoms. So now you know why native breeds need to be conserved.)
The Brahmin community celebrates the Maatu Pongal day as Kanu, as Maatu Pongal is mainly associated with only farmers. This day is to honor the crows. The women in the house will keep a feast for the crows in the backyard of the house or terrace. The feast contains the previous day’s rice. While they keep the feast, they say together “Kaaka pidi vechchen, kanu pidi vechchen, kaakaikkellam kalyanam” meaning “I kept handfuls for the crow, I kept handfuls for kanu, it is marriage for all crows”. There are other variations like “Kaaka pidi vechchen, kanu pidi vechchen, kaakaikkum kuruvikum kalyanam” meaning “I kept handfuls for the crow, I kept handfuls for kanu, it is marriage for crows and sparrows”, however, it is probably more practical to say the first version since crows mate among themselves! Basically, the feast kept is considered to be the wedding feast. The women offer prayers to strengthen their relationship with their brothers and hope that their brother-sister ties remain forever like a family of crows. On this day as well, special dishes are made, and mandatorily, a dish with spinach is made.
This day is the same as Maatu Pongal or Kanu and refers to the visitings in the evening of this day. “Kaanum” means “view”, and hence it is the time when everyone visits friends and relatives. People even have family picnics or outings to celebrate. Also, at this time, brothers gift their married sisters to affirm their love and affection, in return for their sisters having done the Kanu. In villages, landlords gift their farmers and workers with clothes, money and food.
On Bhogi, people usually prepare Puran Poli.
The following neivedhyams are prepared and offered to the Sun God in a plantain leaf:
- Chakkarai Pongal or Sakkarai Pongal
- Pongal Chaadam or Manjal Chaadam
- Coconut Bits
- Grated Jaggery
- Paruppu Vadai
- Sugarcane bits
- Betel Leaves (vethillai)
- Betel Nuts (paaku)
The pongal chaadam, with coconut bits and grated jaggery are a tradition usually followed by families based in Tirunelveli and Palakkad. The significance or aitheeham is that the yellow color of the pongal chaadam symbolizes the sun and mangalyam or auspiciousness, the coconut symbolizes fertility and the jaggery, being sweet, symbolizes gratitude and ease.
Apart from these offerings, a feast is also prepared for lunch. Most families also prepare Ven Pongal on this day to keep up with the theme. Also, most families also prepare either a “Sambar” or “Rasakaalan” with 5 different vegetables. Typically, the rice for the chakkarai pongal is cooked in the earthen pot, Pongal Paanai or Vengala Paanai, while the family gathers around it and say “Pongalo Pongal” when the rice and milk boils over and rices to the top. However, nowadays, pongal is prepared in pressure cookers and “Pongalo Pongal” is just said out aloud while offering to the God, or for individual satisfaction, when the pressure cooker’s whistle goes off!
So, lunch menu usually consists the above neivedhyams and the following:
- Ven Pongal
- 5 Vegetable Sambhar or Rasakaalan or Kozhambu
- Side dishes like Poriyal/Poduthuval etc
- Plain Rice
On this day, there is no special offering made to Gods, but the women in the house offer a feast to the crows with the previous day’s rice and dishes. Details are given below in the procedure section. Generally, for lunch, a special feast is also prepared for the family, from the ingredients in their farm and backyard, that usually consists of different varieties of rices like Lemon Rice, Coconut Rice, Ulundu Chaadam (urad dal rice), Ellu Chaadam (sesame rice) and Thayir Chaadam (curd rice) but most importantly, (mashed spinach dish) is used. Also, they do not make rasam on this day. The significance here is to use the harvested grains of the season – rice, ural dal, sesame seeds etc. Sesame seeds also signify immortality and hence used on this day by most families to signify the immortal ties between brothers and sisters. Spinach is used because, usually, in the farms, after the monsoons and winter, different types of greens are the first to grow in the backyards and hence are cooked and that is how the custom stuck. As with other auspicious days, onion and garlic are avoided. Basically, the customs came from the methods followed by farmers in the olden days and they are continued to this day.
Lunch menu usually consists of:
- Types of variety rices like (but not limiting to)
– Coconut Rice
– Lemon Rice
– Ulundu Rice
– Sesame Rice
– Tamarind Rice
– Curd Rice
- Plain Rice
- Papadam/Applam/Karuvadam/Vadams etc
- Keerai (Spinach) Mashiyal
- Side Dish
You can always get creative with the variety rices!
PROCEDURES (For present, urban times)
Procedure for Bhogi
- First, clean the frontyard and the house.
- Then, discard old things in the house.
- Decorate house with plantain leaves and mango leaves if possible and the frontyard with kolam or rangoli, as desired.
- Prepare Puran Poli.
- At night, prepare for the next day, by cleaning the frontyard of the house.
- Draw the traditional Pongal Kolam which shows a chariot (the naalu moolai kolam with a gopuram style pattern on top, and two wheels at the bottom), also showing the Sun, the Pongal Paanai or Vengala Paanai, and sugarcanes on the sides.
(Note: Will include photos soon.)
- Also use Kaavi (the red coloring) to highlight the edges and other parts of the kolam for added beauty.
(Red color usually denotes dhristi kazhikal, or the removal of negative energy. Hence in the kolam, people draw beautiful red lines outlining the white lines to block all negative energy.)
- Clean the stove and put small kolam on it (draw two small lines at the four edges, diagonally, with rice powder and turmeric powder).
- Keep things ready for the next day.
Procedure for Thai Pongal
- Take hair bath (every household member).
- Clean the God’s place and draw kolam.
- Wash the pongal paanai or the cooker in whichever you plan to cook the pongal.
- Tie a turmeric piece with a thread around the neck of the pot or cooker.
- Prepare the pongal during the auspicious time. When the rice and milk in the pot boil and spillover, chant “Pongalo Pongal” with all household members and pray for abundance and prosperity.
- Prepare the other neivedhyam items mentioned above.
- Place all the neivedhyam items on a plantain leaf in front of the God’s place.
- Pray for prosperity and do namaskarams.
- Chant the Adityahridayam Stotram as it is the prayer invoking the blessings of the Sun God.
- Prepare other lunch items.
- Prepare for Kanu by saving about 1/4 cup of the following: chakkarai pongal, plain rice, pongal chaadam. Mix yogurt and dry ginger (chukku) with the plain rice to make curd rice (thayir chaadam). Some families also prepare red rice (kumkumam chaadam) made with plain rice mixed with kum kum (vermillion) to remove the negative energies.
Procedure for Kanu (Only females both married and unmarried)
- Wake up early in the morning, latest by 7 am.
- Keep towels and clothes to wear after taking a shower or bath ready in the bathroom as you cannot touch any cloth item after you perform the kanu.
- Get the following items ready:
– previous day’s chakkarai pongal
– previous day’s pongal chaadam
– thayir chaadam prepared on previous night
– red rice prepared on previous night (some families prepare this)
– 1 inch piece coconut slice
– 1 inch piece of tender turmeric
– 1 inch piece of banana
– 1 inch piece of jaggery
– betel leaves
– betel nuts
– turmeric leaves or plantain leaves or plastic sheet (depending on whatever you get to place the kanu on)
- Use the tender turmeric piece to apply a bindi mark on your forehead. Usually the eldest woman in the household applies it for herself and then the other younger female members.
(Note: Once you apply the turmeric mark on the forehead, you should not touch anything made of thread. So keep everything ready to use after bath, like towels and clothes, before applying the mark.)
- Apply a little oil on your head.
- Draw the naalu moolai kolam in the place where you plan on keeping the kanu (backyard, patio, balcony or terrace etc wherever you find birds), facing the east direction, with one kolam for each person keeping the kanu.
- Place the turmeric leaves on the kolams for each individual. If you cannot get turmeric leaves, you can use plantain leaves, or plastic sheets or even plastic bags for convenience.
- The following steps should be followed by each person individually, while telling “Kaaka pidi vechchen, kanu pidi vechchen, kaakaikellam kalyanam” and praying for the wellbeing of your brothers and family in general.
- Place two betel leaves and two betel nuts in your leaf.
- Place 9 tiny balls of chakkarai pongal, pongal chaadam, kumkumam chaadam and curd rice each in a row on the leaf, in that order.
- Place the coconut bit, turmeric bit, jaggery bit and banana bit below the rice rows.
- Do neivedhyam to the leaf (sprinkle a little water in a circle around the leaf with your right hand).
- Do namaskaram facing the east.
- Leave the food to the birds.
- Take bath.
- Cook the lunch feast for the day, mentioned above.
WISH YOU ALL A VERY HAPPY PONGAL!