Pongal is an ancient festival of the Tamils. It is not known when exactly the Tamils began celebrating the festival, but some historians identify it with the Thai Un and Thai Niradal, believed to have been celebrated during the Sangam Age (200 B.C. to 300 A.D). Pongal, a traditional Tamilian food item that has found a place in the menu of Indian restaurants across the globe, is perhaps the only dish to have lent its name to a festival.
As part of the festivities, maidens of the Sangam era observed penance (Pavai nonbu) during the Tamil month of Margazhi (December-January). Throughout the month, they avoided milk and milk products. They would not oil their hair and refrained from using harsh words while speaking.
The women had their ceremonial baths early in the morning.
They worshipped the image of Goddess Katyayani, which would be carved out of sand. They ended their penance on the first day of the month of Thai (January-February). This penance was to bring abundant rains and agricultural prosperity for the country.
Thai Niradal was a major festival during the reign of the Pallavas (4th to 8th Century A.D.). Andal's Tiruppavai and Manickavachakar's Tiruvembavai vividly describe the festival. According to an inscription found in the Veeraraghava temple at Tiruvallur, the Chola king Kiluttunga used to gift lands to the temple specially for the Pongal celebrations.
Pongal or Thai Pongal is also called Makara Sankaranthi, since it is celebrated on the first day of Thai when the Sun enters the Makara Rasi (Capricornus).
This signals the end of winter and the onset of spring throughout the northern hemisphere. For the next six months, the days are longer and warmer.
The period is referred to as Uttarayan Punyakalam and is considered auspicious. Legend has it that the Devas wake up after a six-month long slumber during this period. And so it is believed that those pass away during Uttarayana attain salvation. In fact, Bheeshma is believed to have waited for the dawn of Uttarayana before he gave up his life.
Pongal is a four-day affair. The first day, Bhogi, is celebrated on the last day of the month of Margazhi. On this day, people decorate their homes. New vessels are bought and old and unwanted things burnt. Of late, environmentalists have pointed out that these bonfires pollute the atmosphere. And often, flights are delayed due to poor visibility because of the smog created by the bonfires.
Scholars have often compared Bhogi to the Indra Vizha celebrated by the Chola kings at Kaveripattinam, also known as Poompuhar. Indra Vizha was celebrated in honour of Lord Indra, also called Bhogi, the God of thunder and rain.
It is also compared to Bhogali Bihu, the harvest festival of Assam, celebrated in January. Assamese build thatched pavilions where they have grand feasts. The pavilions are burnt down the following day, as part of the festivities.
The second day is Perum Pongal, the most important. It is also called Suryan Pongal because people worship Surya, the Sun God and his consorts, Chaya and Samgnya. Women decorate the central courtyard of their homes with beautiful kolams, done with rice flour and bordered with red clay.
Plantain leaves are placed on the kolam on which vegetables and other farm products such as sugarcane, turmeric bulbs and coconuts are arranged.
The offerings (padayals) are usually five in number, one each for Ganesha, Surya, Indra, Agni and the sacred lamp. A tiny idol of Ganesha, made of turmeric paste, is also placed near these offerings.
The pongal dish is cooked exactly at the moment when the new month is born. Traditionally, it was cooked on a hearth specially built for the occasion. Of course, these days, the hearth has been replaced by the gas-stove. The pot in which the food item is prepared, is adorned with flowers, turmeric roots and leaves.
There are several legends associated with Perum Pongal. A sage named Hema prayed to Lord Vishnu on the banks of the Pottramarai tank in Kumbakonam. On Perum Pongal day, the lord is believed to have taken the form of Sarangapani and blessed the sage. Yet another legend has it that Lord Shiva performed a miracle where a stone image of an elephant ate a piece of sugarcane!
The third day is Mattu Pongal, celebrated to glorify cattle that help farmers in a myriad ways. On this day, the cows are bathed and decorated with vermilion and garlands and fed.
In certain villages in southern Tamil Nadu, a bullfight called manji-virattu is held in the evening.
Bags of coins are tied to the sharpened horns of ferocious bulls that are let loose in an open ground.
The young men of the village vie with each other to subdue the bull and grab the bags tied to the horns.
In fact, in ancient Tamil literature, men had to subdue the bull in order to win the hand of a fair maiden and even Lord Krishna is believed to have defeated seven bulls before marrying Nappinnai. Unlike in the Spanish bullfights, in manji-virattu, the bull is never killed.
Mattu Pongal has little significance to city folks. In most urban homes, the day is celebrated as Kannu Pongal. Special prayers are offered by women for the well-being of their brothers.
The Tamils also remember the poet Tiruvalluvar, who was born on this. The last day is Kaanum Pongal. It is that part of the festival when families used to gather on the riverbanks and have a sumptuous meal (kootanchoru).
It is also time for some traditional dances such as kummi and kolattam. In recent years, that day is celebrated as Uzhavar Tirunal in honour of farmers.