Pongal Festival – Major Festival Of Tamil Nadu, South India

Pongal is the most popular harvest festival of Kerala which is celebrated for four days in mid January every year. This festival is celebrated as a thanksgiving occasion in which farmers pay respect and honour to the Sun god, nature and cattle’s for their contribution in agricultural activities. It is also celebrated as the mark of auspicious journey of Sun to northwards which is known as the Uttarayan or Summer Solstice. Pongal festival is a four day long festivity which usually start from 13th and lasts up to 16th January.

That said, the Pongal festival series consists of Bhogi Pongal, Thai Pongal, Mattu Ponal and Kanum Pongal. Each of these festive celebrations is unique in its concept which has its own rituals and way of celebration. This festival is celebrated with great pomp and enthusiasm in which people clean their houses, wear new clothes and make colourful rangoli (known as Kolam) at the main entrance of their houses and cook delicious cuisine.



Though more popular in the rural areas, Pongal festival is celebrated with the same gusto and fervor by the urban population too and the preparations are quite elaborate.

One can notice beautiful Kolams (decorative patterns made on the floor with rice flour) gracing the entrance of most houses. Kolams are generally drawn, traditionally speaking, with rice flour, the idea being that insects would feed on it and bless the household. The kolam also bore sociological significance and is even today religiously performed as a threshold ceremony before dawn in traditional households. Today, the kolam serves decorative purposes, and therefore almost no one takes the pain to draw it with rice flour. Instead, substitutes that can make instant kolams are popularly used.

At the center of the Kolam is a lump of cow-dung, which holds a five-petalled pumpkin flower-a symbol of fertility and an offering of love to the presiding deity. However, one thing that distracts from the solemnity of the festival is the film music blaring out of microphones.

Major festivals in the south are irrevocably linked to the buying of new clothes and the preparing of sweets and other delicacies. The shops are flooded with new things begging to be bought. For women, it is a must to put flowers in their hair, as this is considered auspicious.

Several community events like bullfight and bird fights are organized and community dinners made from the newly harvested crop are enjoyed by all.

In addition, even though Pongal festival is predominantly a festival of Tamil Nadu (South India), it has been celebrated by many other provinces in India with different names. In the states of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, this important festival is called as Sankanthi. It is celebrated on the same day when Pongal is celebrated in the neighboring state of Tamil Nadu. The day begins with people taking holy dips in the waters and worshipping the Sun.The dip is said to purify the self and bestow blessings. During this festive occasion, Special puja is offered as a thanksgiving to God. Sankranti is a three day festival in Andhra Pradesh namely the Bhogi Panduga, Pedda Panduga, and Kanuma Panduga.

In Karnataka, in addition to the above Sankranthi festival, the Kodava community of Coorg district celebrates Puttari, also called as Huttari, as their harvest festival. This festival falls in November-December.

In Kerala, another State of India in the southern region, it is called as Thai Pongal and Makaravilakku festival at Sabarimala on the same day. But it is not the Harvest Festival of Kerala. They celebrate Onam as their Harvest festival which falls in August-September. It is celebrated with utmost joy by all the people of Kerala, irrespective of the religion. Onam festival is celebrated for ten days.


Rituals Performed During Pongal Festival


The First Day – Bhogi Pongal

The first day of Pongal festival is celebrated as Bhogi Pongal. It is celebrated in honour of Lord Indra the ‘God of Clouds and Rains’ who provides abundance of harvest, thereby brings prosperity to the land. On this day people clean their homes and collect all unwanted goods which are thrown in fire lit by using wood and cow-dung cakes. This ritual is called Bhogi Mantalu.


The Second Day – Surya Pongal

Surya Pongal is the most important day of Pongal festival in which the Sun god is worshipped. It is the day when festive celebration begins. On this day family gather outside their home and cook ‘pongal’ in clay pots. When the rice overflows from the pot the people shout ‘Pongal O Pongal’ and pay tribute to the Sun. The overflowing of rice symbolizes a prosperous farming season. It is also the first day of the Tamil month Thai.


The Third Day – Mattu Pongal

The third day of Pongal festival is dedicated to cattle and is known as Mattu Pongal. People offer prayers to the bulls, cows and other farm animals for their contribution in agriculture. On this day cattle are bathed, oiled and decorated with shining metal caps and their horns are painted in bright colors. Tinkling bells, flower garlands and sheaves of corn are tied around their necks.


The Fourth Day – Kaanum Pongal

The fourth day of Pongal celebration is Kaanum Pongal in which people visit their friends and relatives for exchanging sweets, gifts and greetings. It is the time of joint family celebrations in which people decorate their home with Kolam. It is a decorative pattern made up of rice flour which is drawn on the floor or outside the door. It is the painted prayers and welcome sign that brings prosperity to home.

The colourful and vibrant celebrations of Pongal festival remain the much awaited function of Kerala. The pompous celebration of this festival by the people of God’s Own Country attracts tourists from various parts of the globe.


Fun Facts About The Pongal Festival

What does Pongal mean? 

In Tamil, Pongal means ‘boiling over’ (English translation) it is also the name of the main menu item eaten.


What is the Pongal Dish?

The most important part of the Pongal festival is cooking the Pongal dish. Venpongal is made with rice mixed with moong daal, and cooked with ghee, cashew nuts, raisins, and spices. There’s also a sweet version of pongal called Sakkarai pongal. It’s made with jaggery (a type of sugar) instead of spices.

The pongal is cooked in clay pots, on stoves made with stones and wood used as fuel. When it starts to boil over, everyone shouts out “pongalo pongal”.


How is Pongal eaten? 

Ven pongal is eaten with a side of sambar (stew with vegetables and lentils), and vada (lentil donuts) with a side of chutney (Indian salsa made of coconut, tomato or other vegetables). Sweet pongal, depending on the family tradition is actually eaten first or after the meal. Many Indian families I stayed with in Tamil Nadu would eat sweets first for special occasions. It was considered auspicious to put a bit of sweet dish (dessert) on the banana leaf of steel plate to eat before the actual meal items were placed on it.


Should I eat the curry leaves? 

Many who are not used to eating South Indian food will find it strange that people who were raised eating this food will remove the peppercorns, ginger pieces and curry leaves before eating it. Other spices that are usually removed and not eaten could include green chilies, red chilies, and others. People will actually eat with their hand (in most cases) and remove these spices, they are eaten rarely by people. They are added while cooking for taste which absorbs in the food during cooking. It is not considered rude not to eat these spices. In fact, if you do eat them, others may look at you oddly because you would probably notice others not eating these items.


How do people wish Pongal greetings to each other? 

“Happy Pongal” is an easy way to greet with the mixture of English. A traditional way of wishing is “Pongal-o Pongal” which is often said right after the pongal has boiled on the stove. In the village, kids would dance and sing ‘Pongal-o Pongal’. Loosely translated this means ‘It’s boiling over, oh! It’s boiling over!”


Is Pongal festival associated with a religion? 

Because Pongal is a harvest festival, anyone can celebrate the harvest, but I would venture to say Hindus are more apt to celebrate this festival than non-Hindus, especially when Indians of various religions move outside India.


Do people give each other gifts on this holiday? 

For most holidays, the woman of the house would buy new dresses for each member of the family. People are not giving each other gifts. These new dresses would also not be wrapped and unwrapped, simply presented to god with a prayer then handed to the recipient for use. Also, on Pongal, it is important to clean the house on Bhogi and present the clean home with some new items. Some will buy new kitchen utensils, appliances or other household requirements. My friends actually had bought a new ceiling fan to install after Bhogi.


Is Pongal a government or public holiday? 

Yes, Thai Pongal or January 14 is a public holiday. Many government offices, colleges, schools and others may have a holiday on this day.


If I am invited for Pongal to someone’s house, should I bring something?

Bringing a food item may be a best bet, and something vegetarian.  Feel free to ask ahead of time. Often Indians would tell you not to bring anything. Then, ask what’s on the menu so far. Once they mention a few items (more menu items listed here), if you can cook or purchase something to take, that could be a good idea. If you do not have access to Indian food, taking fruits like bananas or apples is a good idea. Stay away from cookies and cakes as these have eggs and some people may not want to eat these items. If you want to take a non-food item, kitchen towels or small gadgets for household use may be a good thought (can openers, jar openers, spatulas, etc). When you leave the gathering you may be offered a small parting gift as a token of appreciation, called Thamboolam.  I often present my guests a small hand towel used for kitchen chores.


Do people eat meat on Pongal? 

Usually, no. Hindus that are non-vegetarians (meat-eaters), as my friends were in the village did not eat meat on Pongal. This includes the sambar- the stew broth is fully vegetarian as well. No eggs, meat or meat products were consumed on this day. Milk products such as ghee, yogurt and milk are eaten, however. Not sure if this is true for everyone, but I would venture to say it’s true for most people.


Are there any symbols associated with this holiday?

Of course, like most traditional festivals around the world there are symbols:

  • Ponga panai, or the earthen pot decorated and used for cooking pongal in. This pot is often decorated with turmeric leaves.
  • Household doorways are decorated with mango leaves and or [raw] coconut leaves.
  • Symbols of the sun are used for Surya Pongal and cows and bulls for Maatu pongal.
  • People also use banana leaves for eating their meals on during Pongal, even in cities.

In addition to these items, “Turmeric tufts, koorai poo, Aavaram poo, banana leaves and mango leaves. Koorai poo is believed to keep evil away and so it is placed in front of houses.”

Many of the symbols of this holiday are recycled in the art and temporary decorations people draw on the ground with rice flour called kolam. Pongal kolangal (kolams) are symmetrically drawn, colorful ground art made with colored rice flour and other items (maybe flowers, grains, etc). Though drawn as a welcome mat daily, for Pongal these ground decorations are specially created with combination of Pongal symbols.

Enjoy the Pongal festival this year on your India holidays!

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