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What is Pongal and how is it celebrated?

pongal 2024

Pongal is the loveliest of South-Indian festivals celebrated in almost all parts of Tamil Nadu. Pongal is also celebrated in other parts of India but are referred to using different terms such as Makar Sankranti in Andhra Pradesh, Sankranti in Karnataka and as Uttarayana in other states in India. It is especially special as people gather as one and express gratitude and other emotions associated with cultural and religious celebrations.

Pongal is a beautiful festival also because people take special care to decorate their homes and surroundings and when the celebration begins, the entire landscape is lit with vibrant colors, spirit, warmth, and sentiment that makes the world a stress-free, happy place to live in, although for a brief period of the festive time.

The History of Pongal

Pongal is the most traditionally ancient festival that originates from almost 2000 years ago. This festival with such historical significance was known as the “Thai Niradal” which translates to “the beginning of the month of Thai”, to mark the birth of the harvest season. “Thai” is the tenth month of the Tamil Calendar and this year the “Thai Thirunaal” falls on the 15th of January 2023.

Earlier, the festival was solely celebrated by farmers and rural families as thanksgiving for the harvest but later it spread to every part of Tamil Nadu and among Tamil communities all over the world and became a cultural celebration. Is Pongal the same as the Tamil New year? No, as Pongal falls on the tenth month, “Thai” of the Tamil Calendar it won’t be considered as the Tamil New Year but is considered as the beginning of a new harvest. The first day of the first month of the Tamil Calendar “Chithirai” is when the Tamil New Year is celebrated.

Another important astrological event that occurs during Pongal is the Solar Equinox also known as the “Uttrayana Punyakala”. During this event, the sun moves towards the north, which is why it’s also referred to as the “Uttarayana” or “northward journey” of the sun. During this period the temperature begins to rise and the days become longer.  In Hinduism, Uttrayana Punyakala is considered to be a very auspicious time for performing religious rituals and other ceremonies. It’s a prime time when people are encouraged to start new projects and indulge in new ventures. The festival is also observed as offering gratitude to the sun god Surya. This year, as per the Tamil Solar Calendar, Pongal 2023 is set to start on the 14th of January and this is when your most awaited Pongal holidays begin.  

Pongal: A Window into the Heart of Tamil Nadu’s Festive Culture

pongal celebration
Pongal celebration

Did you know that the word Pongal translates to “to boil” and it refers to the special dish that is prepared and offered to the gods as an offering of thanks and an emphasis on devotion?

Pongal is a four-day-long celebration in which each day holds a special significance. It typically occurs in mid-January and is a special dedication to the sun god – Surya.

You would miss out on the major fun element of Pongal if you don’t include these activities that make one delirious with joy. These activities include Jallikattu also known as “Yeru Thazhuvudhal”, traditional games specific to Tamil Nadu and Pongal, Pongal pot decoration, and fireworks. All these contribute greatly to the richness and liveliness of the entire festival. The festival also showcases Tamil Nadu’s rich culture and traditions and is a time for the Tamil community to come together reflecting unity and togetherness and give thanks for the bountiful harvest, and the blessings of the Gods.

The Fantastic Four Days of Pongal

There are four types of Pongal or rather four days of the Pongal festival. The first day of the pongal celebration is called “Bhogi” or Bhogi Pongal and is observed in dedication to the god of rain, Indra. On this day, people discard old possessions and welcome the new year by getting new things and decorating their homes. To mark the passing of the past year and the death of the old things, a bonfire is lit using all these discarded old items. And as the fire suffices a new year is markedly born.

Surya Pongal, the second day of the festival involves making the “Pongal” a special sweet porridge-like dish made of the first rice of the harvest, lentils, and jaggery in a clay pot. This is then offered to the sun god, Surya to express gratitude for the abundance of the harvest.

The third day of Pongal is a special day for the cattle and is aptly named “Mattu Pongal”. On this day the cattle are washed and decorated using Vibuthi, sandalwood powder, kumkum, and various other things. They are fed special items and participate in traditional activities like cattle races and Jallikattu.

pongal 2023
Pongal 2023

The fourth and last day of this celebration is a day of sharing and is called the “Kaanum Pongal”. It means getting together with your friends and family and having a picnic or an outing. You would share food, and your harvest, exchange gifts and happiness and joy.

The multifaceted traditions of Pongal

Apart from the compulsory rituals and activities that one indulges in the four days of Pongal, there are many other traditional things one gets to participate in like the drawing of the kolam which are artistically beautiful and intricate drawing drawn in front of the house using rice flour, the lighting of deepam or small oil lamps, pot painting or decorations and the burning of firecrackers. The most widely followed tradition in every household of Tamil Nadu on the occasion of Pongal is the ceremonial oil bath that every individual in the house is supposed to take in the morning before the rituals and celebrations begin. All these traditions and activities bring joy and interest to gather people and celebrate collectively.

As a part of your Pongal religious rituals, you would also follow your traditional ways of celebrating Pongal specific to your ethnic culture. This makes Pongal diverse and adds to the element of variety. Pongal is incomplete without a Thiruvizha which is organized in most of the villages in Tamil Nadu. The Thiruvizha brings the entire village to one place for a mass prayer and religious offering followed by a feast and also includes so many fun activities and traditional shows, street plays, and other small shopping outlets which makes your Pongal an entire package of fun and excitement.

Why is Pongal Celebrated?

The Lord Shiva and bull story is a famous legend in the Hindu mythology. According to the legend, Lord Shiva, one of the principal deities in Hinduism, was once pleased with the devotion of a farmer named Nandi. As a symbol of his acknowledgement and appreciation he blessed Nandi with a bull, which was said to have the power to plow the fields and increase the yield of the harvest.

As Nandi used the bull to plow his fields he was able to reap an abundant and generous harvest. Being as happy and grateful as he was, he began worshiping the bull as a deity. He started celebrating a festival called “Pongal” to honor the bull, and this festival was celebrated every year.

The story spread to all over the country and the Pongal festival became very popular among farmers who also began embracing it as a festival.

In some versions of the legend, the bull is called “Nandi”, the farmer himself who serves as the primary transport of Lord Shiva and in other versions of the story, the bull is seen as another disguise or representation of Lord Shiva himself, and is worshiped as a symbol of strength and power. The bull is also seen and worshiped as a symbol of fertility and prosperity.

What is the Importance of Celebrating Pongal?  

Apart from Pongal being more of an agricultural festival because it is the end of the harvest and a celebration for farmers, the display of the variety and sprightly culture of Tamil nadu as represented through the traditional activities make this a festival of cultural importance too. Likewise, the prayers and offerings to the Sun god and the god of rains, Surya and Indra respectively show how Pongal also has religious significance. Further, since people gather as friends and family, it is a social festival where the entire community of the state experience happiness and delight collectively. Even if you don’t get to meet and greet your people this Pongal, you can still reach out to them online wishing them a “Happy Pongal 2023” along with some great Pongal quotes. This is why Pongal is considered to be the most significant and exquisite festival in India.  

Final Thoughts on pongal celebration:

Although we have so much innovation and are rapidly globalizing, Pongal is a day we reconnect with our culture and traditions. 2023 might have brought you so many new things and you might celebrate Bhogi thinking you are ridding of your past but remember, on Pongal you celebrate culture and traditions that were passed down through generations and thorough history. This Pongal, be grateful for what you had, for what you have in the present, and create a mindscape where you would also be grateful and celebrate the future.