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Colorful Indian Kangayam Holy Cow ready for pongal festival.           Source: pradeep/ Adobe stock

Happy Pongal! The Ancient Indian Festival That Honors Nature

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Many societies celebrate the changing of the seasons and harvest time. One of the most elaborate festivals in India is the Lohri, better known as the Pongal. This is a four-day Hindu festival that has its roots in the ancient past. This festival is typically celebrated from the 14 th to the 17 th of January and celebrates the end of winter and the first harvest of the year.

There are a number of similar festivals held in India at this time of year, such as the Makar Sankranti. The Pongal festival is mostly celebrated in South India, especially by members of the Tamil community. This festival is now celebrated all over the world by the Tamil Diaspora.

Ancient Traditions of the Sangam Age

The holiday was once “known as ‘Indra Vizha’ in the ancient Chola seaport of Poompuhaar, which is considered the birthplace of the Multi-day festival”, states the  Financial Express . It was first recorded over 1000 years ago in the Chola Kingdom that ruled much of South India and Sri Lanka , and which was also very influential in Southeast Asia. It is deeply associated with the so-called Sangam Age , which is considered the golden age of Tamil culture.

The festival can be understood as a ‘thanksgiving’ festival. It honors the gifts of nature and especially Mother Earth. The festival occurs on the Winter Solstice and is based on the traditional Hindu calendar. According to The Hindustan Times , “Pongal marks the beginning of the Uttarayan or the date when the sun begins its northward journey.” This is very important for the rural communities of South India, whose livelihoods depend on the sun and the climate.

Rice is Everything

Britannica reports that “the month preceding Pongal is considered to be made up entirely of inauspicious days and the month following Pongal of auspicious days.” This festival ushers in a period of hope and plenty. The festival is named after the Tamil term for ‘boil rice’, which is a reference to the harvest and is a synonym of plenty. People during the celebrations greet each other with the words “is the rice boiled?”

Traditional rice dish made for the Pongal Festival. (Pixel-Shot / Adobe stock)

Traditional rice dish made for the Pongal Festival. ( Pixel-Shot / Adobe stock)

A paste made from rice and milk, known as Kolam, plays a very important role in the festival. The Hindustan Times reports that “this white paste is considered to be pious and people use it to draw beautiful patterns and designs on the threshold of the houses or the puja area.” Eating sugarcane is also important and so is exchanging presents. Traditionally, landlords gave their workers gifts, such as clothing during the celebrations. Many people give each other highly ornate craftwork, images of Hindu gods, and utensils.

Four Days of Fun

Each day of the four-day festival has a set of unique practices and characteristics. The first day of the festival is known as Bhogi Pongal. This day honors the rain god Indira, the Sun and the Mother Goddess, and is concerned with cleaning oneself martially and spiritually.

Women at a Pongal festival, boiling rice and milk in a new clay pot till it overflows. (Choo Yut Shing / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Women at a Pongal festival, boiling rice and milk in a new clay pot till it overflows. (Choo Yut Shing / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 )

People clean their houses and wear traditional clothing for the festival. The Hindustan Times reports that “the women wear sarees or pavada, while men don the angavastram.” This day is also marked by cooking rice from the first harvest of the year, which is cooked in traditional ways. “The festive spread for the day is payasam, vada and Puran poli along with the regular menu,” states the Financial Express

Bull-Taming Contest

The second day is known as Perum Pongal or Surya Pongal and is the highpoint of the celebrations. The Sun and his consorts are worshipped often by people singing ancient hymns. Bonfires are lit and old things are burnt as a symbol of renewal. On this day, “Chakkara Pongal (sweet) and Ven Pongal (spiced rice) are made with freshly harvested rice in a mud pot (pongu paanai) cooked on a mud stove,” according to the Financial Express . The process of cooking the rice is symbolic of the plenty provided by nature.

Women boiling the rice in a mud pot at a Pongal festival. (Esakkiammal stalin 96 / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Women boiling the rice in a mud pot at a Pongal festival. (Esakkiammal stalin 96 / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

The third day of the celebration is known as Mattu Pongal. During this day, animals especially cows are honored. Cows represent Mother Earth, or the Mother Goddess and they are honored by having their horns painted and are garlanded in flowers, and they can wander and graze where they please. In some areas, a bull is let loose into a crowd of men who try to touch his hump and hang on to it, so it will not escape. The man who captures or tames the bull often receives a sum of money that has been tied to his horn.

Men trying to catch the bull during a Pongal festival. (Sandhanapandian / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Men trying to catch the bull during a Pongal festival. (Sandhanapandian / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

Significance of Pongal

The final day is Thiruvalluvar or Kanum Pongal. On this day it is customary to visit family and friends. Women pray for the wellbeing of their male relatives and that their families are one like flocks of birds. This is a much quieter day of celebration after the three previous hectic days.

The festival of Pongal is more than just a harvest festival. It also strengthens social and communal bonds. There is also a spiritual aspect to the celebrations, it seeks to show people that they are part of nature and indeed the wider cosmos. Happy Pongal 2020!

Happy Pongal! (avs / Adobe stock)

Happy Pongal! ( avs / Adobe stock)

Top image: Colorful Indian Kangayam Holy Cow ready for pongal festival.           Source: pradeep/ Adobe stock

By Ed Whelan

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