Hindu Fest. | Thai Pongal

Pongal | Hindu Festival | A Life (Time) of Cooking | Vegetarian


Hindus acknowledge the sacredness of Earth and all life. Nature is a creative force worthy of respect, even veneration. Each year at harvest time, agrarian communities all over India celebrate this festival with enthusiastic abandon. Harvest festivals occur around this time, in different parts of Indian, and each region celebrates it differently – Thai Pongal in Tamil Nadu and Maha Sankranti in Maharashtra. There is also Uttarayan (Gujarat) and Lori (Punjab). It is a joyous time. People dance, fly kites, sing and exchange gifts in a grand thanksgiving celebration.

This occurs at the time of Makara Sankranti. Sankranti means transmigration of the Sun from one Rāshi (constellation of the zodiac in Indian astronomy) to the next. Makara Sankranti is the time that the sun transmigrates into the Makara Rāshi.

What is the nature of these festivals?

Pongal means overflowing. It is quite natural that harvest times are celebrations. From the mist covered fields of the north to the tropical abundance of the South, harvest festivals are celebrated.

Makara Sankranti is celebrated throughout India in three or four days of giving thanks to four great forces of influence and protection: Indra, the giver of rain; Surya, the Sun; gracious cattle and beloved ancestors. This happy occasion is known as Pongal by Tamils, Sankranti in Karnataka, Pedha Panduga among the Telugus and Lohri by Punjabis. It begins on the day the sun enters Makara (Capricorn), between January 13 and 15. This is the beginning of the Tamil month of Thai, and the sun turns from the South towards the North, known as Utharaayanam, indicating the end of Winter and the beginning of Spring. Thai is the luckiest month in the whole Hindu calendar. They say when Thai is born, hope is born. It is a truly auspicious month. Spring expresses itself in green grass, fragrant flowers and sweet fruits to be enjoyed by all.

This is the only festival based on the solar system in the Hindu calendar that falls on a fixed English date. All other Hindu festivals follow the lunar calendar. The name of the festival is derived from the rice dish pongal or shakkarai pongal, prepared with freshly harvested rice, milk and jaggery. Pongal means overflowing, and gives a sense of abundance. This is a special time of giving blankets, pumpkins, sugarcane and other items to the poor. Married women are honored, and gifts are given to newborn children.

Traditionally people take a bath in any holy river. For a fortnight after this festival, women often get together and share sweets made of sesame seeds and new jaggery, to symbolise friendship. The great kite festival is held in the celebrations of Sankranti and Uttarayan. Here, tourists come from all over the country to witness the kite markets and the kite flying experts who use changes in the wind direction to enjoy a unique sport. Hurda or tender jowar is eaten with lemon and salt. Guaas, custard apples and other fruits are eaten at picnics. A special feature is the preparation of laddus – sweet balls of sesame, jaggery and coconut. Giving of betel leaves, nuts, flowers, fruit and home made sugar dolls on Sankranti day is customary.

In Lori, sesame sweets are enjoyed as well as delicacies of the season such as sugar cane juice, tender corn and tender leaves of mustard cooked for long hours on a low fire.

Thai Pongal | Hindu Festivals | A Life Time of Cooking

Thai Pongal is a major celebration in South India – people celebrate it for three to four days. Pongal occurs on 13th to 15th January (16th is added if 4 days of celebrations occur), which is the beginning of the Tamil month of Thai. The holiday has been celebrated for more than a thousand years!

The significance of Pongal is that the sun begins its journey from the South towards the North in India – the end of winter and the beginning of Spring with its green grasses, fragrant flower and sweet fruits.

The first day is called Bhogi Pandigai and is the day before the actual key celebratory day of Pongal. This day marks the end of winter. This day is mainly a family festival. Many people burn and get rid of old household items and clothes and purchase new ones on this day. Houses are cleaned, painted and whitewashed, and rangoli are drawn to decorate the entrance to homes. A symbolic picture of the Sun is drawn. Clothes are all washed and dried. This marks the start of a new cycle and symbolises the mind also being cleaned of dirty habits. Big new earthen pots are placed on wooden hearth in the courtyard outside the house.

The second day is Perum, also known as Surya Pongal, and is the most important day of Pongal. Many people worship the sun god, Lord Surya by offering prayers on this day. Many people also wear new clothes and women continue to decorate houses with rangoli using rice flour and red clay. It is thanksgiving for a new and fruitful harvest. The chief item for this pongal is newly harvested rice. It is cooked outdoors into Pongal, a sweet dish of rice and mung dal. Families offer Lord Surya all forms of vegetables and milk.

Thai Pongal | Hindu Festivals | A Life Time of Cooking

Mattu Pongal is the third day and includes worshipping cattle because it is believed that cattle help give a good harvest. This is in recognition of the importance of cattle to the agrarian community. They are also regarded as sacred animals. The cows are given a good bath and a thorough scrub. They are then adorned and decorated with garlands around their necks and kumkum on their horns and foreheads. They are not given any work on that day and are allowed to graze without much restraint. Ceremonial boiled rice is offered with sweets and sugar cane.

The fourth day is called Kanum or Kani Pongal, which is when many people go on picnic and spend time with families and friends. The Pongal festival also includes exchanging gifts, dancing, and buffalo-taming contests. Single women seeking good husbands observe this day.

Pongal | Hindu Festival | A Life (Time) of Cooking | Vegetarian

What is done on the first day?

The day before festivities begin, Hindus thoroughly clean their homes, discarding unwanted, worn out or broken items and clothes and obtaining replacements for the year ahead. This clears away stale, negative energy and brings an influx of dynamic blessings into the home. It is a time for clearing the mind as well, to begin the year with focus and confidence. Kolam are drawn to decorate the entrances of the houses. On this day, Indra, the celestial power of lightning and rain, is worshiped. Homage is paid to Lord Indra for the abundance of harvest, thereby bringing plenty and prosperity to the land. Farmers especially pay homage to Indra for timely rains that make the crop harvest a reality. Lord Indra is the leader of the devas and the controller of the clouds (Lightening and thunder bolts are his symbols). He is said to have control over the weather so the farmers make a special effort to pay homage to Lord Indra for timely rains that make the crop harvest a reality.

In some communities, the day begins with an oil bath. The discarded items are normally burned in a bonfire in the evening. Doorways are painted with vermilion and sandalwood paste, and colourful garlands of mango leaves and flowers are hung. The terrace and courtyards are also washed and resurfaced.

Foods common for this day include Poli, Black Gram Vadai/Medhu Vadai, Paruthithurai Vadai, Amavada, kadapa and Curd Vadai.

What happens on the second day?

Pongal | Hindu Festival | A Life (Time) of Cooking | VegetarianUsing coloured rice flour, women again draw patterns on the floor called kolam or rangoli, this time depicting the Moon and the Sun in a chariot. Prayers are directed to Surya, the Sun, with offerings of freshly harvested sugarcane and vegetables. The main event happens at sunrise when everyone takes an oil bath and gathers wearing new clothes in a gaily decorated compound or in the verdant fields. Here, freshly harvested rice is cooked outdoors on an open fire with milk in a new earthenware pot, a pogapanai, around which a turmeric plant is tied. The rice is then symbolically offered to the sun-god along with other oblations. Everyone wears traditional dress and markings. The offerings include the two sticks of sugar-cane in background and coconut and bananas in the dish. Other offerings include grains, vegetables and fruits.

In Tamil communities, the moment the pot boils over, all shout, “Pongalo Pongal!” (“It’s boiling over!”). All watch to see whether the froth overflows toward the East, which auspiciously indicates abundance for the year ahead. Conches are sounded and children dance for joy. A portion of the boiled rice, the season’s first food, is offered to Mother Earth as a gesture of gratitude, and to all creatures and nature spirits. The remainder is eaten by the families. Wearing new clothes, families visit one another, exchanging gifts and enjoying feasts.

The sun is worshipped, signifying the awakening of the human intellect and represents to people the ideal, that being the message of light, the sun, shines equally on all. The sun is the benefactor of all beings. It also stands as a lesson for man to imbibe the value of true selflessness – the personification of true Karma Yoga. The sun gives life-giving warmth and light and expects nothing in return. Families and others offer all forms of vegetables and milk to Lord Surya on this day.

Pongal is a simple dish made with rice and mung beans (green gram) to which milk is added. As well as the new rice sweet pongal, ven pongal and kootu can also be prepared. Godesses Annalaksmi and Annapurani the goddess of Food, and Dhaanyalakshi, the Goddess of bountiful harvests, are also thanked.

Pongal | Hindu Festival | A Life (Time) of Cooking | Vegetarian

What happens on the third day?

The third day is known as Mattu Pongal, the day of Pongal for cows. It recognises the importance of cattle to the farming community. They are also considered as sacred animals. The cows and bulls are given a good bath and thorough scrub, and do not have to work on this day. Multi-colored beads, tinkling bells, sheaves of corn and flower garlands are tied around the neck of the cattle and then are worshipped. They are fed with Pongal (rice and dal),and sweets and sugar cane are offerred. They are taken to the village centres. The resounding of their bells attract the villagers. The entire atmosphere becomes festive and full of fun and revelry. Arati is performed on them, to ensure another year of trouble free farming and produce.

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 the association of this day with cattle, and we offer thanks to cattle, the farmer’s gracious helpers. Bulls and cows alike are lovingly adorned with cowrie shells, embroidered shawls, colorful ropes and beads, flower garlands, sheaves of corn and tinkling bells, and fed sweet rice and sugar cane.

On this day, mixed rice preparations are cooked. Picnic food is made, but there is no rasam on this day.

Pongal | Hindu Festival | A Life (Time) of Cooking | Vegetarian

How is the final day celebrated?

The Fourth day is known as Kanau, Kani or Kanum Pongal day. On this day, a turmeric leaf is washed and is then placed on the ground. On this leaf are placed, the left overs of sweet Pongal and Venn Pongal, ordinary rice as well as rice colored red and yellow, betel leaves, betel nuts, two pieces of sugarcane, turmeric leaves, and plantains. In Tamil Nadu women perform this ritual before bathing in the morning. All the women, young and old, of the house assemble in the courtyard. The rice is placed in the centre of the leaf, while the women ask that the house and family should prosper. Arati is performed for the family with turmeric water, limestone and rice, and this water is sprinkled on the kolam in front of the house.

On the fourth day, ancestors and wildlife are also venerated. It is a day for picnic outings and family visits. Young girls and women receive blessings from older women for happiness and prosperity. Youth honor their elders. Brothers and sisters exchange gifts and express mutual respect and allegiance. Poets and their works are revered. In Tamil Nadu, it is also called Tiruvalluvar Day, in honor of the author of the famed ethical scripture Tirukural.

Food prepared include mixed rice preparations – sweet rice, sour rice and rice with coconut – puliyodharai, maangai saadham, thengai saadham and thayir saadham. All these offerings are enjoyed by all and are also made available on leaves to birds, fish and other creatures. Share what you have with all. Traditionally rasam is not cooked on this day, but rather the food is picnic food and finger food. Women pray for the long life of their brothers and the lasting bonds of their families. Brothers give generous money to their sisters and cousins.

Women looking for good husbands celebrate this day with sweet rice, sour rice and rice with coconut, sharing the dishes with all, including the birds, fish and other creatures.

The visiting and sharing on this day reflects the great idea of sharing goodwill and friendship with relatives and friends. It is a reminder that one’s real wealth is the land where food grows and the cattle that helps in agriculture and selflessly provides staple supplies of milk without making distinction of caste, creed and colour.

Information from various sources including Hinduism Today and PongalFestival.org. Various books provided information including South Indian Hindu Festivals (Maithily Jagannathan), Hindu Feasts, Fasts and Ceremonies (Dr Sarkar), How to Celebrate Hindu Festivals in Your Own Home (TRAC), and Festival Samayal (Nija Varadarajan).
Pics from the internet.

Food for Pongal

All of our Thai Pongal recipes are here.

Pongal and Kitcheri Recipes


Other Rice Recipes
Plain Rice – How to Cook
Payasam Recipes
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