Pongal (festival)

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Observed byparticularly Tamil people in India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, United States, Indonesia, Mauritius, Singapore, UK, South Africa, Canada, Australia, UAE, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain, Kuwait
TypeHindu festival[1]
SignificanceHarvest festival. Thanking the Sun God for agricultural abundance 4 days long
CelebrationsPongal dish, decorations, flour dishes, home coming, prayers, processions, gift giving[2]
DateFirst day of the 10th month of Tai (Tamil calendar)
Related toMakar Sankranti, Magh Bihu, Uttarayana, Maghi, Maghe Sankranti, Shakrain

Template:Tamil transliteration Pongal (பொங்கல், /ˈθˈpŋʌl/, also spelled Poṅkal), is also referred to as Thai Pongal (தைப்பொங்கல், also spelled Tai Pongal), is a multi-day Hindu harvest festival celebrated by Tamils in India and Sri Lanka.[1][6][7] It is observed at the start of the month Tai according to Tamil solar calendar,[6] and this is typically about January 14.[1][2] It is dedicated to the Hindu sun god,[8] the Surya, and corresponds to Makar Sankranti, the harvest festival under many regional names celebrated throughout India.[9][10][11] The three days of the Pongal festival are called Bhogi Pongal, Surya Pongal and Maattu Pongal.[9] Some Tamils celebrate a fourth day of Pongal as Kaanum Pongal.[7]

According to tradition, the festival marks the end of winter solstice, and the start of the sun's six-month-long journey northwards when the sun enters the Capricorn.[12] The festival is named after the ceremonial "Pongal", which means "to boil, overflow" and refers to the traditional dish prepared from the new harvest of rice boiled in milk with jaggery (raw sugar). To mark the festival, the pongal sweet dish is prepared, first offered to the gods and goddesses (goddess Pongal), Mattu Pongal, is for worship of the cattle known as Mattu. Cattle are bathed, their horns polished and 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 then shared by the family. Festive celebrations include decorating cows and their horns, ritual bathing and processions.[12][6][13] It is traditionally an occasion for decorating rice-powder based kolam artworks, offering prayers in the home, temples, getting together with family and friends, and exchanging gifts to renew social bonds of solidarity.[2][14]

Pongal is one of the most important festivals celebrated by Tamil people in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh,[15] Telangana[16] and Puducherry in India.[7][17] It is also a major Tamil festival in Sri Lanka.[18][19] It is observed by the Tamil diaspora worldwide,[20][21] including those in Malaysia,[22][23] Mauritius, South Africa,[24][25] Singapore,[26] United States, United Kingdom, and Canada.[27][28][29]

Etymology and history

Tai (தை, Thai) refers to the name of the tenth month in the Tamil calendar, while Pongal (from pongu) connotes "boiling over" or "overflow." Pongal is also the name of a sweetened dish of rice boiled in milk and jaggery that is ritually consumed on this day.[6]

The principal theme of Pongal is thanking the Sun god, the forces of nature, and the farm animals and people who support agriculture. The Pongal festival is mentioned in an inscription in the Viraraghava temple dedicated to Vishnu (Thiruvallur, Chennai). Credited to the Chola king Kulottunga I (1070-1122 CE), the inscription describes a grant of land to the temple for celebrating the annual Pongal festivities.[30] Similarly, the 9th-century Shiva bhakti text Tiruvembavai by Manikkavachakar vividly mentions the festival.[30] However, there is no evidence in the holy scriptures for celebrating Pongal.[31]

Pongal dish made from rice in milk, with cane or white sugar.

According to Andrea Gutiérrez – a scholar of Sanskrit and Tamil traditions, the history of the Pongal dish in festive and religious context can be traced to at least the Chola period. It appears in numerous texts and inscriptions with variant spellings. In early records, it appears as ponakam, tiruponakam, ponkal and similar terms.[32] Some of the major Hindu temple inscriptions from Chola Dynasty to Vijayanagara Empire periods include detailed recipe which are essentially the same as the pongal recipes of the modern era, but for the variations in seasonings and relative amounts of the ingredients.[32] Further, the terms ponakam, ponkal and its prefixed variants have meant either the festive pongal dish by itself as prasadam, or the pongal dish as part of entire thali (now alankara naivedya). These were a part of the charitable grants received and served by free community kitchens in Tamil, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh Hindu temples either as festival food or to pilgrims every day.[32]

Pongal dish

The festival's most significant practice is the preparation of the traditional "pongal" dish. It utilizes freshly harvested rice, and is prepared by boiling it in milk and raw cane sugar (jaggery).[12] Sometimes additional ingredients are added to the sweet dish, such as: cardamom, raisins, Green gram (split), and cashew nuts. Other ingredients include coconut and ghee (clarified butter from cow milk).[9][32] Along with the sweet version of the Pongal dish, some prepare other versions such as salty and savoury (venpongal). In some communities, women take their "cooking pots to the town center, or the main square, or near a temple of their choice or simply in front of their own home" and cook together as a social event, states Gutiérrez.[32] The cooking is done in sunlight, usually in a porch or courtyard, as the dish is dedicated to the Sun god, Surya. Relatives and friends are invited, and the standard greeting on the Pongal day typically is, "has the rice boiled"?[12]

The cooking is done in a clay pot that is often garlanded with leaves or flowers, sometimes tied with a piece of turmeric root or marked with pattern artwork called kolam. It is either cooked at home, or in community gatherings such as in temples or village open spaces.[33] It is the ritual dish, along with many other courses prepared from seasonal foods for all present. It is traditionally offered to the gods and goddesses first, followed sometimes by cows, then to friends and family gathered. Temples and communities organize free kitchen prepared by volunteers to all those who gather.[12][34] According to Andre Bateille, this tradition is a means to renew social bonds.[2] Portions of the sweet pongal dish (sakkara pongal) are distributed as the prasadam in Hindu temples.[9]

The dish and the process of its preparation is a part of the symbolism, both conceptually and materially.[6][14] It celebrates the harvest, the cooking transforms the gift of agriculture into nourishment for the gods and the community on a day that Tamil's traditionally believe marks the end of winter solstice and starts the sun god's journey north.[6] The blessing of abundance by Goddess Pongal (Uma, Parvati) is symbolically marked by the dish "boiling over".[33]

Days of the festival

A house with Pongal festive preparation in Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu.

The festival is observed for three[1] or four[7] days in Tamil Nadu, but one or two days in urban locations particularly in the Tamil diaspora outside South Asia.[9]

Bhogi Pongal

The Pongal festival begins on the day called Bhogi Pongal, and it marks the last day of the Tamil month Marghazi.[35] On this day people discard old belongings and celebrate new possessions. The people assemble and light a bonfire in order to burn the heaps of discards. Houses are cleaned, painted and decorated to give a festive look. The horns of oxen and buffaloes are painted in villages. New clothes are worn to mark the start of the festival.[9][35] The deity of the day is Indra – the god of rains, to whom prayers are offered, with thanks and hopes for plentiful rains in the year ahead.[9][35]

Bhogi is also observed on the same day in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. In the ceremony called Bhogi Pallu, fruits of the harvest such as regi pallu and sugar cane are collected along with flowers of the season. Money is often placed into a mixture of treats and is poured over children. The children then separate and collect the money and sweet fruits.[36]

Surya Pongal

For Pongal, homes and streets are decorated with kolam floor artwork

Surya Pongal – also called Suryan Pongal or Perum Pongal – is the second and main festive day, and is dedicated to the Hindu god Surya.[9][35][37] It is the first day of the Tamil calendar month Tai, and coincides with Makara Sankranthi – a winter harvest festival celebrated throughout India. The day marks the start of the Uttarayana, when the sun enters the 10th house of the zodiac Makara (Capricorn).[7] The day is celebrated with family and friends, with the Pongal dish prepared in a traditional earthen pot in an open space in the view of the sun.[7] The pot is typically decorated by tying a turmeric plant or flower garland, and near the cooking stove are placed two or more tall fresh sugarcane stalks.[7]

The pongal dish is traditionally prepared by boiling milk, in a group setting. When it starts to bubble, freshly harvested rice grains and cane sugar are added to the pot. As the dish begins to boil and overflow out of the vessel, one or more participants blow a conch called the sanggu while others shout with joy "Pongalo Pongal"! – lit. "may this rice boil over".[38] This is symbolism for the shared wish of greater fortunes in the year ahead.[9][35] In rural settings, the gathered women or neighbors sing "kuruvai trills" (traditional songs) while the pongal dish is cooking.[6] The dish is offered to the gods and goddesses, sometimes to the village cows, and then shared by the community. Men traditionally offer prayers to the sun with the ''vanakkam'' posture in open, and then proceed to eat their meal.[39] According to James Lochtefeld, the Pongal dish is first offered to Surya and Ganesha, and then shared with the gathered friends and family.[40]

Tamil Hindus decorate their homes with banana and mango leaves and embellish the entrance space before homes, corridors or doors with decorative floral, festive or geometric patterns drawn using colored rice flour. These are called kolams.[7]

Mattu Pongal

Left: Offerings from harvest to gods and goddesses; Right: Mattu, lit. "cow", in a kolam.

Mattu Pongal is celebrated the day after Surya Pongal. Mattu refers to "cow, bullock, cattle", and Tamil Hindus regard cattle as sources of wealth for providing dairy products, fertilizer, transportation and agricultural aid. On Mattu Pongal, cattle are decorated – sometimes with flower garlands or painted horns, they are offered bananas, a special meal and worshipped.[7][39][41] Some decorate their cows with manjalthanni (turmeric water) and oil. Shikakai apply kungumam (kumkum) to their foreheads, paint their horns, and feed them a mixture of venn pongal, jaggery, honey, banana and other fruits. Others bathe their cattle and prostrate before them with words of thanks for the help with the harvest.[39]

In cities, the day marks the ritual visit to nearby temples and prayers there. Temples and communities hold processions by parading icons from the sanctum of the temple in wooden chariots, drama-dance performances encouraging social gatherings and renewal of community bonds.[39] Other events during Pongal include community sports and games such as cattle race, the Jallikattu.[39][42] The major cultural festivals on Pongal occur near Madurai.[7]

Kanum Pongal

Festive dress, dance event and community processions for Pongal.

Kanum Pongal, sometimes called the Kanu Pongal, the fourth day of the festival, marks the end of Pongal festivities for the year.[43] The word kanum (kaanum) in this context means "to visit." Many families hold reunions on this day. Communities organize social events to strengthen mutual bonds.[9] Villagers cut and consume farm fresh sugarcane during social gatherings.[44] Relatives, friends and neighbors visit to greet, while youngsters go out to meet seniors among the relatives and neighborhoods to pay respects and seek blessings, while some elders give the visiting children some pocket change as a gift.[9][45]

Kanu Pidi is a tradition observed on Mattu Pongal by women and young girls. They place a leaf of turmeric plant outside their home, and feed the leftover pongal dish and food from Surya Pongal to the birds, particularly crow.[7][39] They pray for their brothers' well being, in a manner similar to Bhaiya dooj in north India.[7] Brothers pay special tribute to their married sisters by giving gifts as affirmation of their filial love.[9]

Pongala in Kerala

In Kerala – a state that shares historic cultural overlap with Tamils through Chera dynasty according to Sangam literature, the festival is called Pongala. The rituals including the cooking of milk-rice-jaggery dish, social visits, and the reverence for cattle is observed in Kerala communities. It is observed on the same day as Tamil Pongal, and is a limited state holiday in the districts of Wayanad, Idukki, Pathanamthitta, Palakkad and Thiruvananthapuram.[46]

Of particular note is the largest pilgrimage and annual gathering of Hindu women to the Attukal Bhagavathy Temple near Thiruvanathapuram (Kerala). The Pongala festival falls according to the Malayalam calendar, in the month of Makaram-Kumbham (February–March).[47] They gather and stay in the streets, town people host and help with the supplies, they cook together and offer the Pongala dish to the Hindu temple goddess Bhagavathy (aka Parvati avatar, Durga-Kannaki). Free food is distributed to everyone on the streets.[48]

The Pongala dish by women pilgrims near the Goddess temple in south Kerala

While the Attukal Pongala pilgrimage and festival has roots in the Hindu culture and temple, it attracts participation from women from other religions.[49] The Attukal Pongala has been recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest gathering of women in the world, featuring an estimated 2.5 million women.[50] The celebrations include dance (Kathakali) and musical performances by boys and girls, as well as major processions featuring the temple goddess.[51]

Community Pongal

Pongal during "MupPoosai" at SingalandaPuram

Community Pongal is an event where families gather at ceremonial worship. It becomes an important part of the worship, starting from selecting the pot, igniting the fire and other steps. Sugarcane sticks, bananas and coconuts are also offered.[52][53]

Contemporary practices and related festivals

The Pongal festival maybe viewed more as a "social festival" since the contemporary celebrations do not necessarily link it to temple rituals.[7] Temples and cultural centers organize the ritual cooking of Pongal dish, along with fairs (Pongal mela) with handicrafts, crafts, pottery, sarees, ethnic jewelry for sale. These sites hold traditional community sports such as Uri Adithal ("breaking a hanging mud pot while blindfolded"), Pallanguzhi and Kabbadi, as well as group dance and music performances in major cities and towns.[54][55]

In Karnataka, the festival days are similar, except the dish is called "Ellu". Decorations and social visits are also common in many parts of Karnataka.[56]

This day coincides with Makara Sankranthi,[57] and Maghi (day after Lohri).[58] It is celebrated in many parts of India, Nepal and Bangladesh.[59]

Name Region
Pongal Tamil Nadu
Makara Sankranthi Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Manipur, Uttar Pradesh
Sankranthi Karnataka
Sankranthi Andhra Pradesh, Telangana
Uttarayana Gujarat and Rajasthan
Maghi Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Punjab
Magh Bihu/Bhogali Bihu Assam
Maghe Sankranti or Makar Sankranti Nepal
Shakrain Bangladesh

Outside India

The festival is observed by the Tamil diaspora worldwide,[20][21] including those in Malaysia,[22][23] Mauritius, South Africa,[60][25] Singapore,[61] United States, United Kingdom, and Canada.[27][28][29] In 2017, Delegate David Bulova introduced a joint resolution HJ573 in the Virginia House of Delegates to designate January 14 of each year as Pongal Day.[62]

See also


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  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Beteille, Andre (1964). "89. A Note on the Pongal Festival in a Tanjore Village". Man. Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. 64: 73–75. doi:10.2307/2797924. ISSN 0025-1496. JSTOR 2797924.
  3. "Public holidays for 2020 announced, Tamil Nadu Government". The Hindu. 23 October 2019. Retrieved 30 October 2019.
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  7. 7.00 7.01 7.02 7.03 7.04 7.05 7.06 7.07 7.08 7.09 7.10 7.11 7.12 Vijaya Ramaswamy (2017). Historical Dictionary of the Tamils. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. pp. 274–275. ISBN 978-1-5381-0686-0.
  8. R Abbas (2011). S Ganeshram and C Bhavani (ed.). History of People and Their Environs. Bharathi Puthakalayam. pp. 751–752. ISBN 978-93-80325-91-0.
  9. 9.00 9.01 9.02 9.03 9.04 9.05 9.06 9.07 9.08 9.09 9.10 9.11 A Mani; Pravin Prakash and Shanthini Selvarajan (2017). Mathew Mathews (ed.). Singapore Ethnic Mosaic, The: Many Cultures, One People. World Scientific Publishing Company, Singapore. pp. 207–211. ISBN 978-981-323-475-8.
  10. J. Gordon Melton (2011). Religious Celebrations: An Encyclopedia of Holidays, Festivals, Solemn Observances, and Spiritual Commemorations. ABC-CLIO. pp. 547–548. ISBN 978-1-59884-206-7.
  11. Roy W. Hamilton; Aurora Ammayao (2003). The art of rice: spirit and sustenance in Asia. University of California Press. pp. 156–157. ISBN 978-0-930741-98-3.
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 12.3 12.4 Pongal, Encyclopaedia Britannica (2011)
  13. G. Eichinger Ferro-Luzzi (1978). "Food for the Gods in South India: An Exposition of Data". Zeitschrift für Ethnologie. Dietrich Reimer Verlag GmbH. Bd. 103, H. 1 (1): 86–108. JSTOR 25841633.
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  19. "Washington Embassy celebrates Thai Pongal | Embassy of Sri Lanka – Washington DC USA". Retrieved 4 July 2015.
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External links