Like Bihu in Assam, Onam in Kerala and Nabanna in Bengal, Pongal is the harvest festival celebrated in Tamil Nadu in India. It is celebrated on the day of winter solstice, marking the beginning of the sun's northward journey towards the equinox and is known as ‘Makar Shankranti’ in the Hindu solar calendar. The festival, which is celebrated for four days, is basically a thanksgiving celebration where people express their deep gratitude to Mother Nature. Literally, the Tamil word Pongal means ‘overflowing’ and the festival is named from the tradition of boiling the new rice in earthen pots till they overflow. The overflowing symbolizes abundance and prosperity. Hence, the festival signifies a period of abundance, affluence, peace and happiness.
Pongal is the only Hindu festival that follows a solar calendar. It is celebrated every year during the middle of January. It ushers in the New Year in Tamil Nadu. Newly-harvested grains are cooked for the first time on that day. Happy and cheerful festivities mark the celebration in every home. People exchange Pongal wishes, with the hope of that, it brings the harbinger of good luck, good fortune and good cheer. It is a popular custom to exchange gifts on Pongal, when people present gifts to the family members and the friends as well. Sculptures of the Sun God, fancy items for home decoration, utensils, wooden handicrafts and household goods are the most preferred and popular gift items on Pongal. During the festive days the poor are fed and clothed. It is particularly a very popular festival among the farming community, as it marks the end of harvesting season.
The first day of Pongal is known as ‘Bhogi Pongal’. On this auspicious day, people thoroughly clean up and decorate their homes with ‘kolam’, made using rice paste. Kolams are generally white, but some people also add colours to it to make them bright. The day is celebrated in honour of Lord Indra, the King of gods, who is also considered as the supreme ruler of clouds that give rains from the heaven to the earth below. Homage is paid to him and people pray for the abundance of rain and thereby bringing prosperity to the land. In the evening a ritual, called ‘Bhogi Mantalu’ is observed, when people throw their old and useless household articles into a fire made of wood and cow-dung cakes. Girls dance happily around the bonfire, while singing songs in praise of the gods, the spring and the harvest.
The second day of the festival is called ‘Perum Pongal’. However, it is also known as Surya Pongal, as the day is dedicated to the Sun God. The day starts in the early hours, when the women cook rice in milk outdoors to prepare ‘Pongal Payasam’ in earthen pots and then symbolically offer it to the Sun God, along with his consorts, Chaya and Samgnya. In the village, the Pongal ceremony is carried out more simply. In accordance with the ritual, a turmeric plant is tied around the pot in which the rice is to be boiled. The offerings include two sticks of sugar-cane in the background and coconut and bananas in the dish.
There are several legendary stories associated with Perum Pongal. It is said that, a sage named Hema was praying to Lord Vishnu on the banks of the Pottramarai tank in Kumbakonam. It is believed that, on the auspicious Perum Pongal day, the Lord appeared before Hema in the form of Sarangapani (Vishnu) and blessed him. According to another story, on this day Lord Shiva performed a miracle when a stone image of an elephant ate a piece of sugar-cane.
The third day, Mattu Pongal, is meant to offer thanks to the cows and bulls, as they help to plough the lands for cultivation. The animals are bathed and decorated with multi-colored beads, tinkling bells, sheaves of corn and flower garlands around the necks and then are worshiped. The entire festive atmosphere with all its fun and pleasure reaches the climax, when the ritual of ‘Arati’ is performed before them, to ward off the evil eye. Arati is a part of Hindu worship, in which lighted wicks soaked in oil or camphor are rhythmically offered to one or more deities. According to a popular mythical story, Lord Shiva once instructed his bull, Basava, to visit the earth and intimate the mortals about his direction to have an oil massage and bath every day and to eat once in a month. Inadvertently, Basava advised that everybody should eat daily and have an oil bath once a month. This negligence of duty enraged Shiva and he cursed Basava, banishing him forever from the Heaven and to live on the earth and plough the fields to help people produce more food. The story explains the association of this day with cattle. Mattu Pongal is also marked for ‘Jallikattu’, a contest of taming a violent bull.
Kaanum Pongal, the fourth and final day of Pongal, is also known as Thiruvalluvar day and it marks the end of the festival for the particular year. On this day, a ritual is performed when the leftover of sweet Pongal and Venn Pongal, along with ordinary rice as well as coloured rice are placed on a washed turmeric leaf, along with betel leaves, betel nuts and sugar cane and kept in the courtyard. This ritual is carried out by the women of the household before taking their bath in the morning to wish good luck for their brothers and praying for their prosperity.
Pongal is a festival for the mass and is happily celebrated with some traditional dances like kummi and kolattam. Besides the state of Tamil Nadu, it is very much popular in Puducherry and is also celebrated outside India, by the many Tamil people staying abroad.