Pongal is an important festival of the people of Tamil Nadu. It is observed on the first day of the Tamil month “Thai” which falls in the middle of January. The dates of most festivals in India vary as they are based on the solar or the lunar calendar rather than the Gregorian Calendar. Pongal however is an exception and is usually celebrated on January 14th. This is the day on which the sun begins its northward journey from the Tropic of Capricorn. It is very auspicious day and the sun is worshipped. It marks the end of harvest season in Tamil Nadu. A plentiful harvest of rice and sugarcane ensures a period of prosperity.
The word “Pongal” actually stands for a mixture of rice, moong dal (lentil), sugar or jaggery (sugar cane juice) and milk. It is derived from the word poonga, which means “to boil, and the pot containing the “Pongal” mixture has to boil over to symbolize prosperity.
The Pongal festival lasts for four days. On the first day, which is also called Bhogi, the house is scrubbed clean before sunrise. A huge bonfire is lit in which all that is old and useless is discarded and burnt. This symbolizes the beginning of a New Year. Elaborate kolams (floor designs) are made in front of doorways and houses are decorated with mango leaves and plaited coconut leaves.
The actual festival of Pongal is on the second day. In an open courtyard, the pongal dish is cooked in a new pot on a new stove. Huge stalks of sugarcane decorate the courtyard, and are held over the pot too. As the pongal boils over everybody shouts “Pongalo-Pongal! ” People even visit each other enquiring, “has the milk boiled?” The boiling over of the pongal is symbolic of plenty and signifies that the harvest is good. The pongal dish must be cooked on this day and later enjoyed by all with great relish.
The third day called Mattu Pongal is dedicated to cattle. Cows and bulls are washed and their horns are decorated. They are fed with specially cooked pongal. At certain places; bullfights are also arranged on this day. A bag filled with money is tied to the horns of the bull and young men try to wrest it away from the anima. It is also on this day that sisters make rice balls and keep them in the open for birds and insects, praying for the well being of their brothers.
The last day of the festival known as Kannum Pongal is spent either in visiting friends or sightseeing.