Updated January 2010, July 2011.
By: Jennifer Kumar, Cross-Cultural Coach
This post describes the four day festival of a southern state, Tamil Nadu, called Pongal.
More photos of Pongal in India and our home in US
Day 1 - Bhogi
Day 2- Thai Pongal
Day 3 - Maatu Pongal/ Uzhavar Thirunal
Day 4 - Kaanum Pongal/ Thiruvalluvar Day
Q & A - Pongal FAQ with etiquette tips
Pongal is the Thanksgiving or Harvest Festival of South India, particulary in the state of Tamil Nadu. Pongal is not only the name of the four day Thanksgiving festival, but is the name of the main dish made from harvested rice, lentils and spices. When this is put in an earthen pot and left to boil until it begins to boil out and over, people shout Pongal-o-Pongal. Pongal litterally means 'boiling over.' This symbolizes a bountiful harvest as well as wealth, success, health and happiness for all on this day and the rest of the year. Pongal is the first festival beginning off each new year in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. As the dates for this festival are calculated by the solar calander (ie. Western), the dates of January 13-16 rarely change. Each day of this festival has a special significance, however, it is celebrated more grandly in the villages, while the city folk mainly celebrate on the second day only.
First Day of Pongal: Bhogi
The first day of the festival, which falls on the last day of the Tamil month, Margazhi, is called Bhogi. Bhogi is "dedicated to the god Indra (Bhogi). He is the god of clouds and rain, which make the crops grow." (Source- Anita Ganeri, page 9) On Bhogi all people clean out their homes from top to bottom, and collect all unwanted goods. In the evening, people will light bonfires and burn what can be burnt. In the village where I celebrated Pongal, the people lived in mud huts with thatched roofs. The porches of these homes was fully covered by the thatch material, but somewhat elevated from the ground. This part of the home was taken apart and reconstructed on this day along with the front section of the walkway in front of their home (pictured to the left). Both the porch and ground in front of their home was solid mud which had dried. So, to undo this, they put in water to soften it, and dug it out and rebuilt it. After rebuilding it, they took cow dung and added water to make a paste and spread this mixture evenly over the new fixtures to coat and sanitize them. This mixture was also spread on the floor of the hut, on which we slept at night. As they don't have beds, we slept on the floor of the mud hut with a mat between our bodies and the floor. Although, the mixture had been spread on the floor, it did not have an unpleasant smell. In addition, the family I stayed with installed a new ceiling fan for Pongal.
Second Day of Pongal: Thai Pongal
The second day of the festival which falls on the first month of the Tamil month Thai is called, Surya Pongal (or Thai Pongal), is the day on which the celebrations actually begins, is the first day of the Tamil month Thai. On this day, Surya, the sun God is worshiped and women will wake early on this day to create elaborate kolum on the grounds in front of their doorway or home. Kolums are created with colored rice flour placed on the ground carefully by using one's hand. The picture shown to the right shows the beginnings of this. The women in the picture took several hours to finish that kolum. All people will wear their new dresses and use the new utensils or household items which replace the ones discarded the previous day. On this day the new rice is collected and cooked in pots with milk until it overflows. The pot used for this meal is not the ordinary daily use pot, but according to Viji Varadarajan, it is,
"...a new earthenware pot called Pongapanai, on an open fire. The neck of the pongapanni is decorated with the fresh green turmeric and root ginger with is tender green leaves. The green leaves signify prosperity, the turmeric signifies auspiciousness, and the ginger is representative of the spice in life. (source, page 68)"
When the rice boiled in milk begins to overflow, it is a joyous occasion, and the children and adults as well will shout out 'Pongal-o Pongal!' Children will dance and make music to the tune of these words. "Pongal-o pongal" loosely translates into English as 'it's boiling over.' More than the translation, the feeling behind these words is that the universe, god and mother earth offer us a rich abundnace and harvest, so much so that it overflows our requirements and our lives will be full of abundance in many ways for the years to come! The rice is cooked and prepared as a dish called Pongal, which is rice with dhal and sugar. This Pongal variety is called venpongal, ven meaning white. Another variety is also prepared with dhal and jaggery (sweet), called chakraipongal, chakrai meaning sweet. To accompany the venpongal, people eat brinjal (eggplant) sambar (stew), vadai, idli, and spicy accompaniments. This is one of my favorite meals!!
Third Day of Pongal: Maatu Pongal
The third day is called Maatu Pongal, maatu meaning cattle. This day is devoted to paying homage to cattle. This day is alternatively termed as Uzhavar Thirunal* in pure Tamil. Cows and Bulls are decorated with paint and bells and people pray to them. In fact, in my Pongal experience, the cattle were decorated with bells on their neck, and kum kum placed on their head, and we (My friend, her family and I.) paid respect to them by bending down, like praying in temple, and touching their feet and foreheads, followed by an aarthi (showing fire to the object of praise) and offering the cattle prasadam (food offering, in this case, pongal). In some villages in south India, there are bull fights of varying types. These are not so common as they once were, I understand.
*Uzhavar Thirunal translated from Tamil to English means auspicious (thiru) day (nal) for farmers (uzhavar). Thank you, Akshaya.
Fourth Day of Pongal: Kaanum Pongal/Thiruvalluvar Day
The fourth day is termed as Kaanum Pongal. On this day, people travel to see other family members. As in the family I stayed, we traveled to another village to meet her family there. On this day, the younger members of the family pay homage to the elders, and the elders thank them by giving token money (like Rs. 10 or US 25 cents). Another way to observe this day is to feed the crows. For this ritual, called Kakkai Chatham, people leave food out on banana leaves for crows (kakkai) to take. As Ammupatti discusses, here, there are many different ways to observe this, though I don't remember my friend's family having done this, but I do know many South Indian people will take the first bit of rice cooked in any given day and set it outside for the crows to take, so this is not necessarily a habit only for Pongal. I was additionally told that feeding the crows is akin to feeding departed souls, as crows represent ancestors. One of my friend's families believe that feeding the crows once a year is sufficient as a year in our human world is akin to one day in the life of a departed soul. Some also go to temple, as shown in the photo. The photo is taken from the top of the staircase we climbed to get in the temple.
It is also on this day, some observe the bonds between brothers and sisters. Simliar to Rakhi (August/September) and Bhai Duj (part of Diwali, read here), of North India, it is on this day that sisters and brothers meet and sisters show affection and respect to their brothers by presenting gifts and doing aarti and/or placing kumkum on their forehead and prostrating and touching their feet. Brothers usually respond in kind by offering a gift of clothing or other useful item his sister would appreciate. As many people may be traveling on this day, Viji Varadarajan says,
"This is the day when mixed rices preparations; puliyodharai, maanga saadham, thengai saadham, thayir saadham are cooked. It is a day for picnics on the banks of the river that brings water to the paddy lands. Traditionally rasam is not cooked on the day of Kanu, as the food served this day are picnic dishes and finger food. An interesting story related says that Lord Shiva commanded bull Nandi to go to earth and tell his devotees to have an oil bath everyday and eat food twice a week. Nandi mixed up the message and asked the people to have an oil bath twice a week and eat everyday. An irate Shiva commanded Nandi to remain on earth and help man plough his fields so that food would be available everyday. (source page 69)"
It is also on the fourth day of Pongal, poets and poetry is revered as this day is alternatively called Thiruvalluvar Day or Karinall. Thiruvalluvar is a famous Tamil poet. He has written thousands of couplets in the famous work, Thirukural, on moral and social standards. One of his favorite statue memorials is situated in Kanyakumari, on the southern tip of India, in the town of Kanyakumari in the state of Tamil Nadu.
Additional pertinent information: As of April 2008 the government of Tamil Nadu has changed the date of Tamil New Year. It was well-known to fall on April 14 annually. Now Tamil New Year will fall on the first day of Pongal, or the date being Thai 1 as calculated by the Tamil calendar. This means that Thai Pongal (First day of Pongal) and Tamil New Year will fall on the same day as of Thai 1 (2009) or about January 14, 2009. Read about Tamil New Year.
Those who have linked to this page:
Kanum Pongal at Ammupatti's blog
More Photos of Thiruvalluvar Statue, Kanyakumari by Krishna Kumar
Om Lata Bahadur, The Hindu Book of Festivals and Ceremonies
P.V. Jagadisa Ayyaar, South Indian Customs
Notes: Puliyodharai is tamarind rice, maanga saadham is mango rice, thengai saadham is coconut rice, thayir saadham is yogurt rice. Recipes of these preparations are found in Viji Varadarajan's book, Festival Samayal. (quotations used with permission from the author.)
See Viji's Samayal website for sample recipes. More to come on this blog! Image right from Viji's site, used with permission.
Want to know when is Pongal in 2010, 2011, 2012 and beyond? Follow my India America Interfaith and Social Calendar to have holiday reminders sent to your inbox!
References and Links:
A Hindu Festivals Through the Year (Year of Festivals) Western/Vedic (Tamil, Hindi, Malayalam) calendar comparison | Hinduism about.com | Auroville Site- Pongal Legends, Stories, Rituals
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Pongal Cartoon for Kids posted by mahaa26@youtube
Jennifer Kumar is a Cross- Cultural Coach who has completed her B.A. in Communications in India and graduated with First Class at Madras Christian College with a Master's of Social Work. Jennifer understands how to be successful academically and socially in India and America. Jennifer has helped international students, foreign workers and H4, F2 and dependent spouses in USA with culture adjustment including finding work, Americanizing their resume, college admissions, American accent reduction tips and techniques and daily living tasks. She helps people to Americanize their ways of talking to be better understood by Americans while assuring they remain true to their true identity. See some of the testimonials of past clients and see some videos on American Communication Techniques and idioms here.
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