A Festival of Pongal: A South Indian New Year Celebration

The following is an article excerpted and reprinted by permission by my dear friends at Global Adjustments in Chennai, India .  May this information serve as yet another chapter in your education on international cultural awareness.

The celebration of Pongal in South India, especially Tamil Nadu, is the most significant festival for the Tamils and is also called Tamizhar Tirunal (Festival of Tamils)—second in importance only to Diwali, the festival of lights.

Pongal is celebrated on the first day of the Tamil month Thai (January 14th or 15th) and signifies the end of the harvest season. Its history dates back to the Sangam age, from 200 B.C. to 300 A.D.

Kolam designs, intricate geometric patterns of dots and lines, are made with rice flour or limestone powder outside Tamilian homes and are said to usher in the Goddess of prosperity, Lakshmi. Pongal is celebrated over four days.

On the first day, Bhogi, houses are cleaned and all unwanted things are burnt in bonfires that burn through the night. This symbolizes the destruction of evil and ushering in of the good. In recent years, however, the State Government has banned the burning of certain material during Bhogi, especially rubber, because of the toxic gas and pollution produced!

On the second day, Pongal, people wear new clothes and offer thanks to the Sun God. Huge stalks of sugarcane decorate the courtyards in rural areas. These are held over the pot in which sweet pongal, a dish of boiled rice and pulses mixed with jaggery and fresh milk, is prepared. The milk is allowed to boil over as a reflection of plenty, meaning that the harvest has been good.

The third day, Mattu Pongal, is dedicated to the cattle that have helped to reap the harvest with their labour. The cattle are bathed, their horns brightly painted, turmeric and vermilion are applied to their foreheads and they are garlanded. Indeed, it is a very special day for the cattle as they are not only given pongal, sugarcane and other choice food to eat, but they are ritually worshipped. Bull fights and bullock-cart races are held in several villages in the south of Madurai, in Tamil Nadu.

Kaanum Pongal (seeing Pongal) marks the fourth and last day of the Pongal festivities. Dressed gaily, families picnic, visit relatives, and make a tour of the city. It is a day for the outdoors and most city dwellers throng the long stretch of the Marina Beach in the evening, making for a sea of humanity.

In northern India, Makara Sankranti and Lohri are celebrated to coincide with Uttarayana—the movement of the sun in the northerly direction in January. Sugarcane juice, jaggery and sesame sweets are distributed. Huge bonfires are lit and sweets and rice are offered to the fire.

BONUS:  To learn more about this important festival and holiday, see www.123pongal.com.  In fact, have fun sending someone you know from this culture a “Happy Pongal” card, as shown on this site and many other Internet sites.

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