Pongal is one of the most important festivals in all Tamil-speaking provinces which mainly includes the state of Tamil Nadu, Union Territory of Puducherry and Sri Lanka. Pongal is the Tamil harvest festival that is celebrated for 4 days, to convey gratitude and homage to the Sun God for a successful harvest. It is held in the Tamil month of Thai (January- February) and is the only Hindu festival that is celebrated according to a solar calendar. Pongal is celebrated on 14th of January every year. The day preceding Pongal is called ‘Bhogi’ which coincides with ‘Lohri’ in Punjab.
The festival coincides with ‘Makar Sankranthi’, which is a harvest festival celebrated throughout India. Pongal has got great astrological significances and is considered very auspicious due to that it marks the beginning of the Sun’s movement Northward (Uttarayana). Pongal in the Tamil language means, ‘to boil’ and part of the celebration is to boil the first rice of the season. The festival marks the end of the harvest season and gives a break to the farmers and they consider it unlucky to harvest the crop before Sankranthi.
A particular deity is worshipped and paid homage to in each day of the four-day-long Pongal celebrations. Indira the god of rain is worshipped on the first day, the Sun god is worshipped on the second and fourth day. Cattle which is a farmer’s most precious asset is revered and worshipped during the third-day celebration. Many colourful and unique rituals and celebrations are conducted during Pongal, ‘Jallikattu’ or traditional bull taming event, bonfire using in the night on the first day of Pongal celebration, drawing Kolams- Rangoli with lime powder on the front courtyard are a few to quote.
Celebrations and rituals are different for the four days of the festival. Each day of the festival is dedicated for worshipping a particular deity.
First Day (Bhogi Pongal): The much awaited first day of Pongal, is dedicated to Lord Indra, the God of clouds and rain. He is worshipped with the hope that the year’s harvest is in abundance and there is prosperity all through the year. ‘Bhogi’ means ‘the rain God’.
The first day is mainly spent at home cleaning every nook and corner. Old things are removed and discarded. A ‘kolam’ or ‘rangoli’ is drawn at the entrance of every household, using the ground powder made from newly harvested rice and red mud. It may further be decorated using flowers.A special ‘pooja' of farming tools is performed by the farmers before cutting the first harvest of rice and then this freshly harvested rice is brought home along with sugarcane and turmeric to be used the next day.
In the evening, a bonfire is lit of agricultural wastes, firewood, and cow dung cakes. Useless and old household items are thrown into this bonfire while people sing and dance around it. An idol is made of Lord Vinayaka, using cow dung and turmeric, traditional lamps are lit and offerings are made to the Lord.
Second Day(Surya Pongal or Perum): This is the first day of the Tamil month ‘Thai’ and is the most important day of the celebration. The day is dedicated to the Sun God, ‘Surya’. After taking an early bath, an elaborate ‘kolam’ is made at the entrance of the house. New rice that was collected a day before, is cooked in pots till it overflows. In villages, people keep a big common pot which is decorated with flowers, sugarcane etc, in the centre of the village and the new rice is cooked here on everyone’s behalf. The overflowing of rice while cooking is called ‘Pongal’.A wooden plank is placed on the ground and an image of the Sun God is drawn on it and decorated with kolam designs. The God is then offered milk and jaggery. The first portion of the cooked rice is offered to the Sun God, then to cows and then distributed among people as ‘prasad’.
Third Day(Mattu Pongal): Cattle play an important role in a farmer's life and this day is dedicated to them. Cows give milk while the bull and ox help in ploughing the fields. The cattle are bathed and depending on the means, the horns are decorated with silver or metal caps. They are garlanded and paraded on the roads. People pay obeisance to them as they would any deity. A popular Legend behind this celebration says that - Once Lord Shiva had sent his bull, Basava, to Earth, with the message that the Lord wants his people to eat once a month and take bath daily after an oil massage. By mistake, Basava delivered the message that everyone should eat daily and bathe once a month. Enraged, Lord Shiva sent him to earth to help the people till the land to produce more food.On this day, Goddess Parvati and her son, Lord Ganesha, are worshipped and Pongal is offered to them.
In certain provinces of Tamil Nadu like Madurai, Tiruchirapalli, and Tanjavur, a bull-taming festival called ‘Jallikattu’ is held. Bags of money are tied to the thorns of a vicious bull and anyone who manages to retrieve it takes it as a prize.
Fourth Day(Kannum Pongal/ Karinaal/Thiruvalluvar Day): On this day too, the Sun God is worshipped and the first portion of the Pongal prepared is offered to him along with coconut and sugarcane stalks.Sisters pray for the well-being of their brothers by performing their ‘aarti’ with turmeric powder, limestone and rice and then sprinkling this water on the kolam in front of the house. They place rice in the centre of a leaf and pray for the prosperity of their brother and his family.