The harvest festival of Pongal is one of the most significant Hindu festivals that are celebrated by Indians across the world. Especially in South India, this four-day festival is celebrated in the month of Thai, which is when crops like rice are harvested and people show their gratitude for the bountiful. Also known as Thai Pongal, this year the festival falls on January 14. People begin the festivities by boiling the harvested rice and offering it to the Sun God, as a symbol of thanksgiving. The celebrations begin on the last day of the Tamil Maargazhi month to the third day of the Thai month. Pongal means “overflow” or “boiling over” and also denotes the slow and gradual heating of the earth by the sun.
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Customs and traditions
During Pongal celebrations, Tamilians across India and the world make kolams or traditional designs in their homes using coloured powders, rice powder or white stone powder. The kolams are drawn to welcome Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, prosperity and happiness into the houses. Following which, they prepare a sweetened dish using rice, jaggery and lentils as a part of the customary celebrations this day. People offer worship and a part of their first harvest to the Sun God. People also prefer to get married in this auspicious month.
Pongal is celebrated on the last day of the Tamil Maargazhi month and is believed to be the harbinger of good luck, bountiful harvest and prosperity. The celebrations start on January 14 this year and will go on for four days. Each of the four Pongal days has its own significance.
The first day marking the start of celebrations is dedicated to Indra god. People p[repare offerings for Him and a huge bonfire is lit and kept burning throughout the night. ‘Bhogi Kottus’ or buffalo-skin drums are beaten as people revel in traditional folk songs and dances. Houses are decorated with kolams and cow-dung balls with yellow pumpkin flowers set on them.
The second day of the festivities is dedicated to the Sun god. A special harvest dish made of rice, jaggery, turmeric and lentils are made and brought to boil till it spills over, in mud pots. With sugarcane sticks, this special dish called ‘Sakkarai pongal’ is offered to the sun. It is believed that Lord Sundareshwar breathed life into a stone elephant in the temple of Madurai on this day.
The third day of the festival is to worship and show gratitude for the cattle stock. Colourful flower garlands and bells are tied around the necks of cows, before they start performing the puja. On this day, cattle race or jallikattu is commonly practised. It has however come under the scanner on grounds of animal cruelty.
‘Kaanum’ means to visit. On this day, people hold grand unions ad get-togethers. Brothers convey their respects and tributes to their married-off sisters. Landlords offer gifts, money and clothes to their tenants. People everywhere visit their near and close ones to spend time and celebrate the festival together.
Legends and mythology
Pongal is believed to be the only Hindu festival that follows a solar calendar. The festival solemnises the Uttarayana or the commencement of the Sun’s six-month journey towards the north. The festival marks the end of the winters and the start of the spring. It is believed that this is when the deities woke up after a six-month sleep and men who expired during this six-month period achieved mukti or moksha.
According to one of the popular legends, Shiva god asked his bull Basava to go to the earth and tell the men of the earth to take an oil bath every day and have food once a month — for six months. But in his carelessness, Basava conveyed the message that all should eat daily and take an oil bath once every month. Infuriated, Shiva punished the bull by cursing him to assist humans in ploughing the fields. This is why cattle stock is worshipped and tamed in the popular sport Jallikattu. Another legend goes that Krishna asked the cowherds to not worship Indra god, in order to teach him a lesson. Indra’s arrogance had risen after he was made the king of all deities. In his anger, he made the clouds bring thunderstorms and rains for three days, but Krishna protected the people by lifting the Govardhan mountain. This made Indra god realise his mistake and Krishna god’s power.