Come the last day of the Tamil month of Maargazhi, and the people of Tamil Nadu all gear up to celebrate the harvest festival of Pongal which carries on to the third day of the Tamil month Thai. It is a festival that also marks the auspicious beginning of Uttarayan – the sun’s journey northward. The festival is also a special thanksgiving to God, Sun, the Earth, and cattle.
Pongal is derived from the word Ponga which means boil. During Pongal the first rice of the season is boiled and left to spill over or overflow as an appreciation to the sun for providing energy for agriculture. It also represents abundance and prosperity.
Pongal is celebrated for four days starting with Bhogi when houses are cleaned and all the unnecessary old things like clothes and other unwanted materials are discarded or burnt as a symbol of beginning life afresh. At dawn, a bonfire is lit to burn all old things. New clothes denote a new beginning. The cleaned houses are decorated with kolam. People buy new household things, decorative and vessels for their homes.
The second day is the Surya Pongal where the Sun god is thanked and worshiped. The second day coincides with the Makar Sankranti festival or the start of Uttararayan. People have an oil massage, and bathe and wear new clothes. A new kolam, or rangoli is decorated in front of the house each day of Pongal. Milk is boiled in earthen pots or vessels and when it boils over, freshly harvested rice is added to the pot along with palm sugar and cooked. A conch is blowed and people chant “Pongolo pongal”. The cooked pongal is served to all. The elders give gifts to the youngsters in the house.
The third day of Pongal is Maatu Pongal. This is the day when people honour all the animals, especially the cattle that play a very important role in agriculture. Cows and bulls are pampered, decorated, and worshipped as an expression of gratitude. The horns of the cattle are painted and decorated. Freshly made pongal is served to these cattle. Coloured rice, sweet pongal, cooked vegetables, and bananas are also offered to birds, especially the crows on this day.
The fourth day of Pongal celebrates social visits and reunions. Known as Kaanum Pongal, people visit families and friends carryings gifts for them. People take time to visit not just relatives but also spend time on beaches, at fairs and other entertainment avenues. You can see people chewing sugarcanes and serenading in new clothes.
Pongal is the celebration of the traditional occupation of people of the rural regions of India. The festivities mark a break from the tiresome work in the fields.