Relevance of Pongal

published on January 13, 2010

Pongal is an important Hindu festival of South India and is celebrated on the winter solstice, when, according to the traditional Hindu system of reckoning, the Sun having reached its southern point turns to the north again and reenters the sign of Capricon. The Sun moves from the Tropic of Capricon (Makar Rashi) towards the Equator and then towards the Tropic of Cancer. This period beginning from January 14 lasts till July 14 and is known as Uttarayan. Bhikshma, the grand sire of Mahabharat, is believed to have waited on his  bed of arrows in the battlefield of Kurukshetra for Uttarayan in order to free his soul from mortal bondage and attain moksha (salvation).

The month preceding Pongal is considered to be made up entirely of inauspicious days and the month following Pongal of auspicious days. Pongal literally means ‘overflow’ but its real significance is abundance. For the Hindus, the date of Pongal is auspicious and is derived from the solar calendar. Hence it usually remains the same around January 14, every year and this celestial event is celebrated as Pongal. Rice is boiled in milk and offered to the Gods, then to the cows and then to the family members. During the exchange of visits among relatives and friends, the salutation begins with the question, ‘has the rice boiled’? to which the answer is, ‘it has boiled’ and from this the festival takes its name from the Tamil word ‘Pongal’ i.e, ‘boiling’.

Pongal festival marks the advent of spring and the celebration lasts for four days from the last day of the Tamil month of Margazhi (December-January). It is celebrated when the fields are blooming. During Pongal farmers express their gratitude to Sun God. The festival is celebrated as Makar Sankranti in Central India and Bhugali Bihu in Assam.

Each of the three days is marked by different festivities. The first day, Bhogi Pongal, is in honor of Lord Indra for the abundance of harvest and is a day for the family. Surya Pongal, the second day, is dedicated to the worship of Surya (Sun God). Boiled milk and jaggery is offered to the Sun God. The third day of Pongal, Mattu Pongal, is for worship of the cattle known as Mattu. Cattle are bathed, their horns painted in bright colors, and garlands of flowers placed around their necks. The Pongal that has been offered to the Gods is then given to cattle and birds to eat. The fourth day is known as Kannum Pongal when a turmeric leaf is washed and placed on the ground. On this leaf are placed, the left over of sweet Pongal known as Chakkaraipongal and the salty one called Venpongal.

The history of Pongal can be traced back to the Sangam era (200 B.C. – 300 A.D. and has reference in the Puranas. ‘Pavai Nonbu’ was a major festival and young girls prayed for rain and prosperity. Throughout the month, they do not take milk or milk products. They do not oil their hair and refrain from using harsh words while speaking. Andal’s Tiruppavai and Manickavachakar’s Tiruvembavai describe the festival of Thai Niradal and the ritual of observing Pavai Nonbu.

In Maharashtra, January 14 is celebrated as a festival of Makar Sankranti and is marked by the flying of kites. A newly wed woman gives away oil, cotton and sesame seeds to mark the auspicious day in order to bestow upon her and her
family long life and prosperity.

In Gujarat, Pongal day is celebrated as Makar Sankranti and kite-flying is a major event for this day traditionally celebrated on the 13th or 14th January. In Uttar Pradesh, Pongal is celebrated as Makar Sankranti and taking a ritual bath in the river is considered significant on this day. Apart from the ritual bathing, khichri (a cooked mixture of rice and lentils) is given away.

In Andhra Pradesh, Pongal celebrations start a month in advance. Bhogi is the day preceding Sankranti and Kanumu is the day after. On Bhogi day, in the early morning, a bonfire is lit up before the traditional bath and on Kanumu day animals are decorated and races are held. Sun, Mahabali (mythological king) and Godadevi are also worshipped during the day.

In Karnataka, the festival is called ‘Sankranti’, and cows and bullocks are gaily decorated and fed ‘Pongal’. In the evening, the cattle are led out in procession. An interesting tradition is followed. After the pujas, white sesame (ellu) mixed with pieces of jaggery, peanuts, dry coconut and sugar blocks are exchanged.

In Kerala, on Makar Sankranti evening, at Sabarimala, lakhs of pilgrims witness a celestial light known as Makara Jyothi appearing on the horizon at the time of Deeparadhana and Ayyappa devotees consider it as a great moment of fulfillment.
The festival of Pongal was celebrated mainly by the farmers and rural folk earlier but has become a national festival. The festival is fostering a feeling of togetherness not only within the family or neighbourhood but also in the whole country. The festival symbolically represents the pot of plenty and this is depicted by the boiling over of the cooking rice and lentils. Each Pongal is celebrated with the hope that the new harvest will bring fortune and prosperity to all.

(The author is a social activist and Director, Indo-Gulf Consulting, a Mumbai-based PR consultancy firm. He can be contacted on [email protected])

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