Pongal 2023 in India will begin on
Sunday, 15 January
and ends on
Wednesday, 18 January
Pongal (பொங்கல்), also referred to as Thai Pongal (தைப்பொங்கல்), is a multi-day Hindu harvest festival celebrated by Tamils in India and Sri Lanka. It is observed at the start of the month Thai according to the Tamil solar calendar, and this festival is celebrated usually on January 14 or January 15 depending on the sun’s orbit around the earth that particular year. It is dedicated to the sun god, Surya, and corresponds to Makar Sankranti, the harvest festival under many regional names celebrated throughout India. The three days of the Pongal festival are called Bhogi Pongal, Surya Pongal, and Mattu Pongal. Some Tamils celebrate a fourth day of Pongal known as Kanum Pongal.
According to tradition, the festival marks the end of the winter solstice, and the start of the sun’s six-month-long journey northwards when the sun enters the Capricorn, also called Uttarayana. The festival is named after the ceremonial “Pongal”, which means “to boil, overflow” and refers to the traditional dish prepared from the new harvest of rice boiled in milk with jaggery (raw sugar). To mark the festival, the Pongal dish is prepared, and first offered to the gods and goddesses, including Surya. Mattu Pongal is for the worship of the cow known as Madu. Cattle are bathed, their horns polished and painted in bright colors, and garlands of flowers placed around their necks. The Pongal that has been offered to the deities is then given to cattle and then shared by the family. Festive celebrations include decorating cows and their horns, ritual bathing, and processions. It is traditionally an occasion for decorating rice-powder-based kolam artworks, offering prayers in the home, and temples, getting together with family and friends and exchanging gifts to renew social bonds of solidarity.
Pongal is one of the most important festivals celebrated by Tamil people in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, and Puducherry in India. It is also a major Tamil festival in Sri Lanka. It is observed by the Tamil diaspora worldwide, including those in Malaysia, Mauritius, South Africa, Singapore, United States, United Kingdom, Canada, and the Gulf countries.
Tai (தை, Thai) refers to the name of the tenth month in the Tamil calendar, while Pongal (from pongu) connotes “boiling over” or “overflow.” Pongal is also the name of a sweetened dish of rice boiled in milk and jaggery that is ritually consumed on this day.
The principal theme of Pongal is thanking the Sun god, the forces of nature, and the farm animals and people who support agriculture. The Pongal festival is mentioned in an inscription in the Viraraghava temple dedicated to Vishnu (in Thiruvallur). Credited to the Chola king Kulottunga I (1070–1122 CE), the inscription describes a grant of land to the temple for celebrating the annual Pongal festivities. Similarly, the 9th-century Shiva bhakti text Tiruvembavai by Manikkavachakar vividly mentions the festival. However, there is no evidence in the holy scriptures for celebrating Pongal.
Pongal dish made from rice in milk, with a cane or white sugar.
According to Andrea Gutiérrez – a scholar of Sanskrit and Tamil traditions, the history of the Pongal dish in a festive and religious context can be traced to at least the Chola period. It appears in numerous texts and inscriptions with variant spellings. In early records, it appears as ponakam, tiruponakam, ponkal and similar terms. Some of the major temple inscriptions from the Chola Dynasty to Vijayanagara Empire periods include detailed recipes which is essentially the same as the Pongal recipes of the modern era, but for the variations in seasonings and relative amounts of the ingredients. Further, the terms ponakam, ponkal and its prefixed variants have meant either the festive pongal dish by itself as prasadam, or the pongal dish as part of the entire thali (now alankara naivedya). These were a part of the charitable grants received and served by free community kitchens in Tamil, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh Hindu temples either as festival food or to pilgrims every day.
Days of the festival
The festival is observed for three or four days in Tamil Nadu, but one or two days in urban locations particularly in the Tamil diaspora outside South Asia.
The Pongal festival begins on the day called Bhogi Pongal, and it marks the last day of the Tamil month Marghali. On this day people discard old belongings and celebrate new possessions. The people assemble and light a bonfire in order to burn the heaps of discards. Houses are cleaned, painted and decorated to give a festive look. The horns of oxen and buffaloes are painted in villages. New clothes are worn to mark the start of the festival. The deity of the day is Indra – the god of rains, to whom prayers are offered, with thanks and hopes for plentiful rains in the year ahead.
Bhogi is also observed on the same day in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. In the ceremony called Bhogi Pallu, fruits of the harvest such as regi pallu and sugar cane are collected along with flowers of the season. Money is often placed into a mixture of treats and is poured over children. The children then separate and collect the money and sweet fruits.
Surya Pongal – also called Suryan Pongal or Perum Pongal – is the second and main festive day, and is dedicated to the sun god. It is the first day of the Tamil calendar month Tai, and coincides with Makara Sankranthi – a winter harvest festival celebrated throughout India. The day marks the start of the Uttarayana, when the sun enters the 10th house of the zodiac Makara (Capricorn). The day is celebrated with family and friends, with the Pongal dish prepared in a traditional earthen pot in an open space in the view of the sun. The pot is typically decorated by tying a turmeric plant or flower garland, and near the cooking stove are placed two or more tall fresh sugarcane stalks.
The Pongal dish is traditionally prepared by boiling milk, in a group setting. When it starts to bubble, freshly harvested rice grains and cane sugar are added to the pot. As the dish begins to boil and overflow out of the vessel, one or more participants blow a conch called the sanggu while others shout with joy “Pongalo Pongal”! – lit. “may this rice boil over”. This is symbolism for the shared wish of greater fortunes in the year ahead. In rural settings, the gathered women or neighbors sing “kuruvai trills” (traditional songs) while the Pongal dish is cooked. The dish is offered to the gods and goddesses, sometimes to the village cows, and then shared by the community. Men traditionally offer prayers to the sun with the ”vanakkam” posture in open and then proceed to eat their meal. According to James Lochtefeld, the Pongal dish is first offered to Surya and Ganesha, and then shared with the gathered friends and family.
Tamils decorate their homes with banana and mango leaves and embellish the entrance space before homes, corridors, or doors with decorative floral, festive, or geometric patterns drawn using colored rice flour. These are called kolams.
Mattu Pongal is celebrated the day after Surya Pongal. Mattu refers to “cow, bullock, cattle”, and Tamil people irrespective of religion, regard cattle as sources of wealth for providing dairy products, fertilizer, transportation and agricultural aid. On Mattu Pongal, cattle are decorated – sometimes with flower garlands or painted horns, they are offered bananas, a special meal, and worshipped. Some decorate their cows with manjalthanni (turmeric water) and oil. Shikakai apply kungumam (kumkum) to their foreheads, paint their horns, and feed them a mixture of venn pongal, jaggery, honey, banana, and other fruits. Others bathe their cattle and prostrate before them with words of thanks for the help with the harvest.
In cities, the day marks the ritual visit to nearby temples and prayers there. Temples and communities hold processions by parading icons from the sanctum of the temple in wooden chariots, drama-dance performances encouraging social gatherings and renewal of community bonds. Other events during Pongal include community sports and games such as the cattle race, and the Jallikattu. The major cultural festivals in Pongal occur near Madurai.
Kanu Pongal, the fourth day of the festival, marks the end of the Pongal festivities for the year. The word kanum (kaanum) in this context means “to visit.” Many families hold reunions on this day. Communities organize social events to strengthen mutual bonds. Villagers cut and consume farm fresh sugarcane during social gatherings. Relatives, friends, and neighbors visit to greet, while youngsters go out to meet seniors among the relatives and neighborhoods to pay respects and seek blessings, while some elders give the visiting children some pocket change as a gift.
Kanu Pidi is a tradition observed on Mattu Pongal by women and young girls. They place a leaf of turmeric plant outside their home and feed the leftover Pongal dish and food from Surya Pongal to the birds, particularly crows. They pray for their brothers’ well-being, in a manner similar to Bhaiya dooj in north India. Brothers pay special tribute to their married sisters by giving gifts as affirmation of their filial love.