Pongal is the harvest festival, held in mid-January each year in thanksgiving to nature, the sun, the rain and working animals. Agriculture is of immense importance in India, so the harvest is a major event. It is believed that this celebration brings wealth and prosperity.
The Pongal festival is widely celebrated in South India, especially Tamil Nadu where it is called Thai Pongal.
It falls on the first day of the month that is called Thai in the Tamul calendar. In Tamil Nadu it is said that “The birth of the month of Thai paves the way to new opportunities”.
In North India, this period of time takes other names and it is celebrated in different ways:
Pongal has an astrological significance too. Under the name of Makara Sankranti it marks the sun’s transition from Dhanur Rasi (Sagittarius) to Makara Rasi (Capricorn).
There are 12 sankranti or transitions in the year, one for each month.
Makar Sankranti marks the start of Uttarayana, the six months of the sun’s southward progression.
In Hinduism Uttarayana is considered propitious, unlike Dakshinaayana, when the sun is moving southward. Important events are scheduled for Uttarayana.
Boghi, the first day of the Pongal festival, is associated with the legend of Indra, the god of clouds and rain, and Lord Krishna.
The people of Govardhana were in the habit of worshipping Indra; but the honour went to his head and he became arrogant, thinking he was the most powerful of all beings.
When Krishna heard of this he concocted a plan to teach Indra a lesson. He persuaded the people to worship Mount Govardhan instead of Indra. This so annoyed Indra that he sent tremendous downpours of rain to flood the land. Lord Krishna lifted Mount Govardhan on his little finger and held it aloft over the inhabitants to protect them. The rain continued for three days, until Indra realised he was wrong and acknowledged the divine power of Krishna. He asked his forgiveness and promised to be humble.
Krishna allowed the Bhogi celebrations in honour of Indra to continue. So this day is the origin of the Pongal festival, which is also called Indran by reference to the legend.
Another legend connects Mattu Pongal, the third day of Pongal, with Shiva. One day Lord Shiva sent his mount, the bull Nandi, to tell people on Earth to bathe with oil once a day and eat only once a month. But Nandi got confused and told the people to eat every day and bathe with oil once a month. A furious Shiva cursed Nandi and told him there would be grain shortages on Earth because of his mistake. He banished the bull and sent him to live on Earth to help humans work the fields.
The word ‘pongal’ means ‘to boil over’ or ‘to overflow’. Pongal overflows as a sign of abundance and prosperity.
In one Pongal ritual, people boil rice and deliberately let it boil over as a sign of prosperity. In Tamul homes, the cry of “Pongalo Pongal!“ can be heard at the moment the rice boils over.
Pongal has also given its name to an Indian dish, a kind of sweet or savoury pudding. The ingredients vary from region to region. For the sweet version, rice is cooked in milk sweetened with jaggery (palm sugar) or molasses. For the savoury version, see the recipe below.
Symbolically, pongal (the dish) combines the five elements or ‘Pancha Bhootha’. Rice represents the land or Bhoomi. It is cooked in water: Jalam. The fire it is cooked on represents Agni, sacred fire. Traditionally, it is cooked in the open air – Vayu (air) and Akasham (the ether).
Traditionally, the festival lasts four days. Attukal Pongal in Kerala lasts ten days.
First the houses are cleaned and decorated to prepare for Pongal. Hindu women make kolams, decorative geometric patterns drawn with rice flour, in front of the door of their home. Symbolically, kolams welcome visitors and ensure the household’s prosperity.
People burn or throw out old household articles and buy new ones. This marks the start of a new cycle. This first day is celebrated in honour of Indra, god of clouds and rain.
It is the most important day of Pongal. It is on the morning of this day that rice is set to boil and allowed to boil over. People also prepare snacks, visit each other and exchange good wishes. This is also the day when some people pray to the sun god Surya.
This is the day of thanksgiving to the cattle that help make a good harvest. The cows and buffaloes are groomed, garlanded and decorated with colours in their honour, and they are given food offerings.
This is a day for spending time with friends and family and sharing meals. Traditional dances like kummi or kolattam are danced on this day.
‘Ven Pongal’, tamil recipe
For 2 people. The preparation is very fast, about 30 minutes.