Pongal or Thai Pongal is a very traditional festival of Tamil Nadu, existing in practice perhaps across a thousand years or so. It is essentially a harvesting festival, celebrated as a way of thanksgiving to Sun God and Lord Indra, for having blessed the people with good harvest, by giving essential rains and shine.
It is traditionally celebrated as a 4-day festival. The main festival is the Pongal or Surya Pongal which falls on the 1st Day of Tamil month ‘Thai’ (That’s why the name Thai Pongal), which mostly and typically falls on the 14th January. It is the same day of Makara Sankranti, which is typically celebrated in most other parts of India. In Tamil Nadu too, this festival is called Sankranti by some sects of people like Brahmins.
Makara Sankranti or Pongal is the time when Sun begins its northward travel called Uttarayana, when the sun enters the 10th house of the zodiac Makara Nakshatra (Capricorn).
The 4-day Pongal festival is strictly not a religiously oriented festival. Even though the intent is to worship Sun God, it cannot be classified as a festival celebrated by a sect of people who consider their prime God as the Sun. As it is not strictly religious, there are no specific worship procedures, chanting of Mantras, undertaking of upavas (fasting), or religiously visiting temples and conducting any specific worship. Though a harvesting festival, it is celebrated by all classes and castes of people and people of all sorts of professions.
It is more of a celebration and thanksgiving and enjoying good food — with Sarkarai Pongal being the prime item, and chewing sugarcane in gay abandon, as much as one’s teeth permit!. The procedures and practices of celebrations may have several variations from place to place and class to class. However, the 4-day structure is almost universal.
Most villagers buy new clothes for the entire family for the Pongal festival, though such a practice has become absent amid urbanites.
Pongal season indeed signifies the end of the previous harvesting period. Rice harvesting is usually done by November/ December. Sugarcane harvesting starts taking place by January, and naturally, sugar cane has a prime place in Pongal celebration. Jaggery made out of sugarcane is the prime ingredient in preparing the Sakkarai Pongal. Tuber plants like Ginger, Turmeric, Chembu (Taro root), and sweet potato give their yield in this period. Typical rural vegetables like avarai, bananas, pumpkins, etc too are available in abundance in this season, paving the way for festive feasts.
1st Day — Bhogi Pongal
Preparations for celebrating Pongal festival start much before the arrival of the festival day. At least a week or more ahead, people thoroughly clean their houses up and down, remove cobwebs, sweep and clean the house and surroundings and give a thorough wash of the house. People who can afford, arrange to freshly whitewash their houses. People discard old, unusable items, including old clothes, bedsheets, garden wastes, papers, and whatnot. The discarded, combustible items are kept in a pile, meant for burning bonfire on the Bhogi Pongal day. Bhogi Pongal signifies “pazhaiyana kazhithalum, puthiyana pukuthalum” (as said in Tamil meaning getting rid of the old and ushering in the new). It signifies the arrival of freshness in life through the Pongal festival.
The bonfire is generally lit early before dawn. In some places, children play a ‘ganjira’ like percussion instrument (cheaply made with cardboard, plastic sheet etc) by dancing arround the fire.
People also wear new clothes on this day and eat a good vegetarian feast. Depending on family traditions, the items in the feast generally include Moar Kozhambu (made out of butter milk), curries made out of rural seasonal vegetables, Boli (a round, soft, stuffed sweet), the typical Vadai-Payasam-Appalam, and the like.
The negative side of bonfire-done-too-much
Certain traditional practices symbolising something auspicious like the Bhogi bonfire, unfortunately, are carried out in excess by some sections of people, particularly in large cities like Chennai. As a mark of celebrating Bhogi, many people started burning old tyres, waste oily rags etc that produce highly polluting smoke. In the past couple of decades, the day of Bhogi dawns with a thick smog enveloping the entire city, with visibility coming down so terribly, that even flights could not take off or land till 9 AM.
It has now become customary for the Police to issue warnings in advance before Bhogi day not to indiscriminately burn old tyres and other polluting wastes.
2nd Day – Pongal / Surya Pongal / Sankranti
Preparation of Sakkarai Pongal dish and offering it to Sun God is the main event on the Pongal day. In villages, it is the practice to use a freshly bought earthen pot for cooking the Pongal. In villages, the cooking is normally done in the open right under the sun using firewood as the fuel. The suggested time of cooking is normally mentioned in the Almanac which coincides with the time of entry of the Sun into the Makara Nakshatra. But not all people may follow this schedule and the cooking may take place at their convenient mealtime too.
Also, non-peasant families and dwellers in town and cities, depending on their affluence and traditions, may not cook in the open. While many such people cook Pongal in their kitchens, the clay pot also gets replaced by a large Bronze Pot (‘Vengala Panai’) which is almost exclusively used for cooking on the Pongal day only.
It is generally the practice to decorate the pot (whether earthen pot or bronze pot) with a belt-like garland that consists of Inji kothu (freshly dug out ginger), manjal kothu (freshly dug out turmeric), a piece of sugar cane, some flowers, a ripe banana, a half-piece of broken coconut, etc. People also apply Kumkum, saffron, sandalwood paste, and religious symbols like namam, pattai, etc depending on their religious leanings. Some people may also use artistically painted earthen pots, in addition to decorations.
See this video that shows a typical decoration done on a bronze pot:
Preparation of Sakkarai pongal (dish)
If pongal is prepared in the outer courtyard, the place is thoroughly cleaned and decorated with kolam. The place is also decorated with sugar canes, flowers, and festoons. While some people follow the practice of digging earth and using it as the fire pit, some use bricks to set up the cooking place. Rice prepared from freshly harvested paddy is normally used for preparing pongal on this festive day.
Initially, washed rice water is boiled in the pot and fresh milk is added to it. When this milk boils, the froth rises up and is allowed to overflow from the pot. This phenomenon, in Tamil, is known as ‘ponguthal’ (swelling) and it is from this word that ‘Pongal’ came. This overflowing is considered an auspicious sign of abundance. Children and elders shout “Pongalo Pongal!” when this occurs. Ladies do ‘kulavai‘ (making a ”loolooloo‘ sound with their tongues) and some men may blow the conch. Immediately after this happens, rice and green gram dhal are added and further boiling continues. Then grated jaggery is added. Cardamom, cashew nuts and dried grapes too are added. Ghee too is added in good measure and when fully cooked, the pot is taken away from the fire.
Then a laddle of this pongal is placed on a plantain leaf along with sugarcane pieces, bananas, betal leaves, etc. They break a coconut, show camphor aarati and offer all these to Sun God, praying for his blessings.
Celebrating and cooking pongal in rural India — See this video:
In many families, it is also the practice to cook ‘Ven Pongal’ (White, salty pongal, with pepper) side by side. People may also prepare a sambar or a Koottu (mixed vegetable curry with gravy) to serve as a side dish.
Once the offering is over, the entire family members sit together and relish the pongals served in banana leaves.
People exchange Pongal greetings with friends and relatives. In the olden days. Children used to buy Pongal Greeting Cards from shops and mail them to their near and dear ones. The cards used to contain different pictures like Gods and Goddesses, temples, natural scenes, Pongal festival scenes. Every boy or girl will have a good collection of such cards as their prized possessions in their cupboards. Such practices have become extinct in the present age of social media.
In the olden days, All India Radio used to broadcast special entertainment programs for the festival day. Nowadays, it is the TV Channels that vie with each other to dish out plenty of special programs and movie shows. Once the offerings and eating are over, most people get glued to their TVs for good or bad for the whole day!
Those who succeed in getting disentangled from the grip of TV may visit temples in the evenings to offer their prayers on the festive day.
Some towns and villages have the practice of arranging Kabaddi competitions as part of the celebration of the Pongal festival.
3rd Day – Mattu Pongal
As the farmers’ life is intrinsically connected with cows and bullocks, the third day of the Pongal festival is dedicated to worshiping and thanks-giving to the cattle. The cowsheds are thoroughly cleaned and washed. The cows and bullocks are washed thoroughly and then decorated with saffron, kumkum, flower garlands, netti malais (Garlands made out of pith stem), and so on. People also clean up the horns of cows and bullocks and paint them in beautiful colors. The ropes (‘Mookanaan Kayiru) that are used to tie the cattle are also freshly bought to replace the old ones on this festive day.
On this day too, villagers prepare pongal dish in fresh pots, offer it to God, and then feed the pongal along with bananas to the cows and bullocks. Only after feeding the cows, pongal is eaten by the family members together.
Bullock carts too are cleaned, washed, and decorated with flowers and leaves of ginger, turmeric and sugarcane plants. In the evenings, farmers’ children take a joy ride in their bullock carts.
Another video: Mattu Pongal Celebration in Tamil | மாட்டுப்பொங்கல் (2019)
Decorating the cows and bullocks with colorful garland made of ‘Netti’ (Pith stem) was a traditional practice existing across generations in many villages. These eco-friendly garlands have unfortunately been widely replaced by plastic garlands in the present times. Consequently, this has affected many families that have been traditionally making some seasonal income by making ‘netti malai’s.
See this Video:
Jalli Kattu celebration on Mattu Pongal
Jallikkattu or Sallikkattu or Manju Virattu is a traditional bull-catching sport, existing in Tamil Nadu perhaps across many centuries, which is part and parcel of Mattu Pongal festival. It is considered as a prestigious ‘Veera Vilaiyattu‘ (Game of the bold and courageous youths) and only certain places in Tamil Nadu have been traditionally nurturing this sport, against objections from certain quarters. This sport is in vogue only in Pudukkottai, Sivagangai, Trichy, and Madurai districts, particularly at places like Alanganallur, Avaniyapuram, Sholavandan, Palamedu, and the like.
Certain specific local breeds of bulls like Kangeyam, Puliyakulam, and Malamedu are carefully nurtured by the owners of the bulls and they take pride in the girth and ferociousness of their bulls that are not easy to conquer by the youth in Jallikkattu.
Many such bulls are released one by one from a narrow entrance called Vadi Vasal, to an adjacent ground where many youths eagerly await their arrival. The ferocious bull, once released, runs at breakneck speed. Several youths try to catch hold of the bull’s hump, while the bull uses all its might to throw them away using its sharp horns or by shaking its body. If any youth succeeds in holding the hump continuously for 30 seconds or running across 15 meters without losing the grip, he is considered a winner and is gifted with prizes. If the bull manages to throw him off and escape, the bull is the winner. There may be some variants in the sports from location to location.
As it is well known, several youths get seriously injured and some even end up in deaths. People from the animal rights movement too have their objections to this game. Anyway, amid such controversies and objections Jallikkattu remains a passion in Tamil Nadu, as it is strongly linked to a tradition of display of bravery among rural youths.
Here is a video of Jallikkattu:
In certain districts like Nagercoil, there is also a tradition of conducting bullock cart races (Rekla race) as part of the Mattu Pongal celebration.
Also on 3rd day – Kanu Pongal
Most Tamil Brahmin families have a tradition of celebrating ‘Kanu Pongal’ on the third day (which is different from Kanum Pongal of the 4th day). It is rather a curiously funny tradition followed by women, who pray for the welfare of their brothers on this day. They do this practice after taking bath and wearing fresh sarees. They spread the leaves of Manjal (turmeric) either at the back yard near the well or at the terrace. They spread small balls of the remnants of the previous day’s Sakkari Pongal, cooked rice (colored in yellow, red, etc) along with finely cut pieces of sugar cane, banana, and betel leaves. They pray to God for the well-being and prosperity of their brothers. The leaves are left as it is with the intention that crows and ants may consume the food items.
As for the feast of Kanu Pongal, it consists of specially made rice preparations like Puliyodharai, Coconut rice, Curd rice etc. Another prominent item is the Kadamba Koottu (also called Kanu Koottu) which is a multi-vegetable curry with gravy. The specialty of this koottu is that all the ingredients are all traditional rural vegetables available in abundance during the season. The kootu normally consists of Plantain (Vazhai kai), stem of plantain (Vazhai thandu) , white pumpkin, yellow pumpkin, flat beans (avaraikkai), Taro root (Chembu), sweet potato, brinjal, ladies fingers, mochai (bean nuts) and grated coconut.
Here is a video showing the preparation of the typical Kadamba Koottu:
Note: In some rural family traditions, such a multi-vegetable koottu, known as Koottu kaai Kozhambu is prepared on the day of Pongal.
4th Day — Kanum Pongal
“Kanum’ in Tamil means seeing. It is the festival day for outings — to visit places, fairs, friends and relatives. Rural people visit adjacent towns and cities to see beeches, movie theatres, amusement parks, temples, zoos, museums, trade fairs, and other tourist-attractive places along with all their family members and kids. The sale of sugarcanes will be very brisk on this day, as youth and children enjoy ‘chewing and viewing’ wherever they go!
Popular tourist spots like Marina beach will witness a sea of people who come to see the seas on the Kanum Pongal day. As a consequence, tons of trashes are left behind, creating a nightmare for Corporation staff to clean up on the next day!
See this video — Kanum Pongal crowd at Chennai Marina beach