Pongal in Thamizh means ‘to overflow’. Pongal is a festival celebrated in Tamil Nadu on the first day of the Thamizh month of Thai. During this period of the year the earth is positioned in its orbit around the Sun in such a manner that the South Pole is leaning towards the Sun and the places north of the equator have long days. In a more non scientific parlance, on the first day of Thai the Sun proceeds from the south of equator to the northern hemisphere, from the Dakshinaayanam (the southern direction) to the Uttaraayanam (the northern direction), over the land of the Bharathas located in the Jambu dweepam.
Indian belief system is built on the paradigm of the good and the bad. Light/darkness, day/ night, waxing/waning around which the day-to-day life is marked, are all metaphors of the good and the bad. The monthly and yearly calendars too follow this prototype. Every month is divided into 2 fifteen-day periods of 30 days, each of the fifteen days go by the waxing and the waning of the moon called the Valar pirai and the Thei pirai. Valar pirai is the waxing time of the moon from Ammavaasai (the new moon) to Paurnami (the full moon); the Thei pirai is the waning period of the moon from the Paurnami to Ammavaasai. The Valar pirai, the waxing period is also called the Shukla patcham (‘shuklam’ means bright) and is deemed as auspicious, while the Thei pirai, the fifteen day waning period of the moon called the Krishna patcham ( ‘Krishna’ means dark), is not highly favoured.
Like the monthly calendar, the yearly calendar too is divided into two periods — the Uttaraayanam and the Dakshinaayanam. During the six months beginning from Thai (mid January to mid February ) to Aani ( mid June to mid July ) the Sun proceeds north of equator, while from the months Aadi to Marghazhi the Sun proceeds to the Southern hemisphere. The first six months after the winter solstice form the Uttarayanam, during this period the days get longer; this period of bright sunshine and long days is considered as auspicious, and is sanctioned for temporal preoccupations; it is the period of celebration. Thai indicates the commencement of this period. The first day of the Thai month is celebrated as Pongal.
Pongal is celebrated to offer thanks to the Sun, the energy that bestows life and vibrancy to all the organisms on the earth. It is a festival that is significant to the farmers, whose life and livelihood depends on the benevolence of the Sun God. Pongal is celebrated as the harvest festival. Though it is a festival central to the farming and pastoral communities, it is celebrated with great zeal by all the people in Tamil Nadu – for, who would not want to be blessed with prosperity and bounty!
True to its name, the Pongal is replete with simple earthly rituals that symbolize happiness and prosperity. Before sunrise, Kolam is drawn with rice flour and decorated with red earth. Mango leaves and toranam made of tender coconut leaves are tied on the doorways. Pongal (Chakkarai/ sweet Pongal), a sweet dish prepared with rice, lentil, milk, and jagerry is offered to the Sun God. The dish is prepared at the time the month of Thai is born, the preparation of the dish is significant and a ritual by itself.
The ponga panai (‘panai’ means pot, earthen or brass pot; ‘ponga panai’ literally means the pot that overflows) is decorated with turmeric and ginger saplings, sandal wood paste and kumkum. The milk is boiled first, and as it boils over the children and the adults in the family chant ‘Pongal – O – Pongal’. Then rice, lentils and jaggery are added to prepare the sweet dish Chakkarai Pongal, this is offered to the Sun God along with sugarcane – all the offerings carry the hope that life overflows with sweetness and happiness. After the offering is made to the Sun God people have a festive lunch that includes rice, Chakkarai Pongal, Vadai, Kootu (a special mixed vegetable dish prepared with the fresh vegetables of the season like pumpkin, different varieties of beans, brinjal, raw bananas and sweet potatoes).
Pongal is celebrated in different ways among the different communities in Tamil Nadu. In the villages Pongal is celebrated with great pomp as the families gather outside their houses and offer Pongal to the Sun God. The day after Pongal is celebrated as Mattu Pongal (‘madu’ is cow). On the Mattu Pongal, the cows are lead to the lake or river, scrubbed and given a good bath. Scented water is sprinkled on the cows and then the cows are decorated with garlands, bells and their horns are polished. The cows are lead home to be fed a nutritive meal, after which they are worshipped.
Pongal is one of the few festivals that is indigenous to the Thamizh culture, it is totally Dravidian with no influence of Aryan/ Vedic practices. There are references to the festival of Pongal in the Sangam literature. It was not very different from the way it is celebrated today in the villages. This goes to prove that culture is a continuum; by celebrating Pongal we keep alive the continuum.
Footnote – Months In Thamizh Calendar
Chithirai falls mid April to mid May
Vaikaasi falls mid May to mid June
Aani falls mid June to mid July
Aadi falls mid July to mid August
Aavani falls mid August to mid September
Purattasi falls mid September to mid October
Aipasi falls mid October to mid November
Karthigai falls mid November to mid December
Margazhi falls mid December to mid January
Thai falls mid January to mid February
Maasi falls mid February to mid March
Panguni falls mid March to mid April