HISTORY OF PONGAL
Going back to the Sangam Age i.e., 200 B.C. to 300 A.D Pongal had its origin. Pongal is an ancient festival of the Tamils identified with the Thai Un and Thai Niradal that were supposed to be celebrated during the Sangam Age. Pongal, a traditional Tamilian food item and is perhaps the only dish to have lent its name to a festival.
As part of the celebrations, unmarried girls of the Sangam era observed penance during the Tamil month of Margazhi (December-January). All through this month, they avoided milk and milk products, didn't oil their hair and refrained from using harsh words while speaking. The women had their ceremonial baths early in the morning.
The image of Goddess Katyayani, which would be carved out of sand was worshiped. They ended their fast on the first day of the month of Thai (January-February). This fast was to bring abundant rains and agricultural prosperity for the country.
According to Hindu mythology, this is when the day of the gods begins, after a six-month long night. The festival is spread over three days and is the most important and most enthusiastically celebrated harvest festival of South India especially Tamil Nadu. A special puja is performed on the first day of Pongal before the cutting of the paddy. Farmers worship the sun and the earth by anointing their ploughs and sickles with sandal wood paste. It is with these holy tools that the newly-harvested rice is cut.
According to a legend, once Shiva asked his bull, Basava, to go to the earth and ask the mortals to have an oil massage and bath every day and to eat once a month. Inadvertently, Basava announced that everyone should eat daily and have an oil bath once a month. This mistake enraged Shiva who then cursed Basava, banishing him to live on the earth forever. He would have to plough the fields and help people produce more food. Thus, this day is associated with cattle.
Each of the three days of Pongal are marked by different festivities. The first day, Bhogi Pongal, is a day for the family. The second day, Surya Pongal is dedicated to the worship of Surya, the Sun God. Boiled milk and jaggery is offered to the Sun God. The third day of 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 birds to eat.
Like many other Indian festivals, Pongal also has a few interesting legends attached to it signifying the importance it holds. The most popular legend is the one connected to the first day of the Pongal celebration when the Rain God, Bhogi or Indra is worshipped. According to the legend, on this day Lord Krishna lifted the Govardhan Mountain on his little finger to shelter his people and save them from being washed away by the rains and floods
Another legend is associated with the third day of Pongal celebration, also known as Mattu Pongal. According to it, Lord Shiva once asked Nandi, his bull, to go to earth and deliver his message to the people - to have an oil bath every day, and food once a month. But Nandi got it all mixed up when he delivered the message, and told the people that Shiva asked them to have an oil bath once a month, and eat every day.
Shiva was displeased, and told Nandi that since the people would now need to grow more grain, Nandi would have to remain on earth and help them plough the fields. Mattu Pongal is also called Kanu Pongal, and women pray for the welfare of their brothers. This is similar to the festivals of Raksha Bandhan and Bhai Dooj celebrated in some states of North India.
MEANING OF PONGAL
Pongal is a harvest festival - the Tamil equivalent of Thanksgiving. It is held to honor the Sun, for a bountiful harvest. Families gather to rejoice and share their joy and their harvests with others. The Sun is offered a "Pongal" of rice and milk.
Literally meaning "Boiling over", Pongal, signifies the advent of prosperity. Pongal is normally celebrated over a period of four days, starting on the 13th January. Since the calculation to determine the day is based on the solar calendar, the date doesn't change. It is considered a very auspicious occasion when the Sun transits the Capricorn sign. A rich and abundant harvest of paddy and other crops depend on the availability of good rain, as most of the rivers in Tamil Nadu are not perennial. Hence, there is the invocation of the Sun God and the God of Rain at the time of Pongal.
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.
As is customary, cleaning of every house a few days prior to the Pongal festival is an indispensable ritual. Not only every house is cleaned, but it is also dusted and whitewashed. Wearing new clothes on Pongal is also customary. Attired in a new "Lehanga" and half sari for young girls and lungi and angavastram, the men, women and children prepare themselves for celebrating the first day called Bhogi Pandigai. This day is dedicated to Indra, who is also called Bhogi. It is believed that on this day Lord Krishna had urged the people to neglect Indra and not worship him. People take oil bath on this day. Using rice paste "Kolam" is drawn and this represents the Sun. The items that are generally used to celebrate Pongal; Sandalwood paste, vermilion, mango saplings, coconut fronds, sugarcanes, banana leaves, ginger pieces, white flour, new vessels for cooking, turmeric, and a "thali" or metal plate in which the sun is viewed.
Pongal is a four-day affair. The first day, Bhogi, is celebrated on the last day of the month of Margazhi. 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.
The second day is Surya Pongal also called Perum Pongal. It is the most important day and people worship Surya, the Sun God and his consorts, Chaya and Samgnya. There are several legends associated with Surya Pongal. A sage named Hema prayed to Lord Vishnu on the banks of the Pottramarai tank in Kumbakonam. On Surya 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. 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 honor of farmers.
The dishes prepared during these days are "Sarkarai Pongal", "Ven Pongal", Dosai and Sambhar, Vadai and Payasam (a sweet rice pudding).
The spirit of Pongal, the harvest festival of Tamil Nadu, is celebrated on January 14th every year coinciding with Makar Sankranti in the North, Lohri in Punjab, Bhogali Bihu in Assam and Bhogi of Andhra Pradesh.
The festival marks the harvest of crops and a special thanksgiving to God, the sun, the earth and the cattle. With the end of the wet month of Margazhi (mid December to mid January) the new Tamil month of Thai heralds a series of festivals. The first day of this month is a festival day known as " Pongal Day". Pongal means the boiling over of milk and rice during the month of Thai.
Pongal is directly associated with the annual cycle of seasons. It not only marks the reaping of the harvest, but also the withdrawal of the southeast monsoons in southern India. As the cycle of season rings out the old and ushers in the new, so is the advent of Pongal connected with cleaning up the old, burning down rubbish, and welcoming in new crops.
Falling just after the winter solstice and a bountiful harvest, Pongal marks the season of celebration and joyous activities. Mainly a three-day festival, the fourth day just after the festival is dedicated to outdoors and excursions. . On the first day, the sun is worshipped, signifying its movement from Cancer to Capricorn. This is also why, in other parts of India, this harvest festival and thanksgiving is called 'Makar Sankranti'. [Sanskrit Makar = Capricorn]
The four day celebration of Pongal marks a period of plenty, peace and happiness. There is a Tamil saying that "Thai peranthal Vali Perakum". That paraphrased means with the dawn of the month of Thai, there will be peace, happiness, prosperity, brightness and harmony in the life of everyone. It is held to honor the Sun, for a bountiful harvest. Families gather to rejoice and share their joy and their harvests with others. The Sun is offered a "Pongal" of rice and milk. Each day of the four-day festival has its own name and distinct fashion of celebration.
Pongal also marks the beginning of a New Year and is the day to praise and thank God with full devotion and faith and sincerity of heart. Old vices and past should be abandoned forever on this day, as we get ready to start life afresh. The festival covers all living beings including humans, cattle and birds and crops. Even the insects have not been overlooked and are offered rice flour to feed on in the form of 'Kollam' on the entranceway of the houses. Thus, Pongal is a day for peace and happiness for all.
A typical traditional Pongal celebration has a number of rituals attached to it. The preparations for the festival are quite elaborate. The place where the Pongal puja is to be performed is cleaned and smeared with dung, a day prior to the festival. The place chosen for this purpose usually happens to be in the courtyard or an open terrace. Kolams (ground patterns made out of rice flour) generally drawn with rice flour are special to the occasion. The idea behind using rice flour is that the insects would feed on it and bless the household. The kolam also bears sociological significance and is even today religiously performed daily as a threshold ceremony before dawn in traditional Tamil homes. The Sankranti Rath (chariot) is a typical Pongal kolam. The ropes of the rath are supposed to be kept open till on the next day they are “joined” from house to house to symbolize a collective desire to realize an uninterrupted cosmic cycle. At the centre of it a lump of cow dung holds a five petal pumpkin flower, which is regarded as a symbol of fertility and an offering of love to the presiding deity.
Sweet rice, known as Pongal, is cooked in a new earthenware pot at the same place where puja is to be performed. Fresh turmeric and ginger are tied around this pot. Then a delicious concoction of rice, moong dal, jaggery and milk is boiled in the pot on an open fire. This Pongal, according to ritual, is allowed to boil and spill out of the pot. Once the Pongal is ready it is tempered with cashew nuts and raisins fried in ghee. Pongal, once ready, is offered to God first, on a new banana leaf along with other traditional delicacies like vadas, payasam, etc.
Besides this, sugarcane, grain, sweet potatoes etc. are also offered to the Sun God. All the four days of Pongal have there own individual significance. On the first day, delicious preparations are made homes are washed and decorated. Doorways are painted with vermilion and sandalwood paste with colourful garlands of leaves and flowers decorating the outside of almost every home. On this day Bhogi or the Rain God is worshipped.
Celebrated in the south, Pongal is marked by the cooking of the rice from the first harvest after the winter. The festival is spread over three days and is the most important and most enthusiastically celebrated harvest festival of South India. Like all Hindu festivals, Pongal too has some interesting traditions and customs attached to it.
This four-day festival of thanksgiving to nature takes its name from the Tamil word meaning "to boil" and is held in the month of Thai (Jan-Feb) during the season when rice and other cereals, sugarcane, and turmeric are harvested. The festivities of Pongal usually take off in mid-January and continue for many days ending in mid-February.
Pongal is celebrated on the same day as Bihu, Lohri and Bhogi. But Pongal stretches over four days. The first day, Bhogi Pongal is devoted to Bhogi or Indran, the rain god. The day is linked with the famous mythological tale about Krishna lifting Gobardhan parbat on his little finger. The day begins with a til oil bath and in the evening there is a bonfire made of old cloths, files, mats and rugs. The second day, Surya-Pongal, is dedicated to the Sun (Surya). On this day, pongal (rice cooked in milk and jaggery) is boiled by women who offer it to the Sun.
Mattu-Pongal, the third day, is dedicated to the worship and veneration of cattle (mattu). The horns of the cattle are decorated with turmeric and kumkum, small bells and flowers are hung around their neck and they are paraded in the streets. The pongal that has been offered to the local deities is given to the cattle to eat.
The last day is known as Kanyapongal. Colored balls of the pongal are made and are offered to birds. A kind of bullfight, called the 'Jallikattu' is held in Madhurai, Tiruchirapalli and Tanjore in Tamil Nadu and several places in Andhra Pradesh. Bundles containing money are tied to the horns of ferocious bulls, and unarmed villagers try to wrest the bundles from them. Bullock Cart race and cockfight are also held. In Andhra Pradesh, every household displays its collection of dolls for three days. Community meals are held at night with freshly harvested ingredients.
People generally go for sightseeing, shopping and exchanging pleasantries with relatives and friends. The farmers, during this point of time, are generally flushed with money having sold their produce. On all the four days during Pongal festival, people make it a point to visit temples and invoke the blessings of the God for a good and prosperous beginning to the year. Even though Pongal was originally a festival for the farming community, today all celebrate it. In the south, all three days of Pongal are considered important. However, those south Indians who have settled in the north usually celebrate only the second day. Coinciding with Makara Sankranti and Lohri of the north, it is also called Pongal Sankranti.
Compiled by NS Raja in Sydney on 14 January 2009 (Pongal Day)