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FAQ – Questions about Pongal the South Indian Thanksgiving Harvest Festival
This article is a tutorial on Pongal. Tips on what to expect, how people celebrate, how to behave, general questions and answers on this most unique and exotic south Indian regional holiday and holy-occasion celebrating the abundant harvest. I have celebrated Pongal twice in India: once in a city, once in a remote village. I have been celebrating pongal by hosting a potluck party in our home for the past five years. I have also attended various Pongal cultural celebrations in US at my Indian friends homes and through Tamil cultural groups, called Tamil Sangam.
All photos used in this article are used with permission. Please respect the contributors and do not reprint their photos. Thank you.
When in Pongal?
Pongal usually falls every year on January 14. This is equal to the Tamil Calendar date of Thai 1. More about Tamil Calendar here.
How many days is Pongal?
Pongal is four days- each day has a different significance. However, in cities Pongal is generally celebrated on January 14 only, where as in villages it is up to four days.
Is Pongal a government or public holiday?
Yes, Thai Pongal or January 14 is a public holiday. Many government offices, colleges, schools and others may have a holiday on this day. Calendar of social and spiritual holidays here.
Is Pongal only in Tamil Nadu?
Yes, Pongal is only in Tamil Nadu. Other states have holidays during this time, such as Sankranti, Makara Jyoti, and Kite festival, but Pongal is the harvest festival, where as the others are not celebrated for harvest reasons. Other parts of India have their harvest festivals at different times of the year.
What is celebrated on the different days of Pongal?
Bhogi, the first day which is the last day of Mazhagi madam (month) is used for cleaning and preparing the house and grounds for the festival.More on Bhogi here.
Thai Pongal is the day most people celebrate Pongal, especially for those only observing it on one day. This day falls on Tamil month Thai day 1. This is the day for harvesting new rice and making Pongal (a dish). More on Thai Pongal here.
Maatu Pongal is the day celebrated and dedicated to bovines/cows (maatu). Families will clean and decorate their cows in the village. In only selected villages, people prep bulls for bull fighting and bull racing. I did not experience this in the village I celebrated Pongal in. More about Maatu Pongal.
Kaanum Pongal/Thiruvalluvar Day is dedicated to visiting family in other villages or going to the family temple.( Kaanum means ‘we see’ in Tamil.) Thiruvalluvar is a famous poet in Tamil history. Some people dedicated this day to him, reading his and other poetry and Tamil literature. More about Kaanum Pongal/Thiruvalluvar Day.
What does Pongal mean?
In Tamil, Pongal means ‘boiling over’ (English translation) it is also the name of a dish (food).
What is Pongal –the food item?
Pongal is freshly harvested rice with moong dhal boiled to a consistency of porridge. It is made both salty and sweet. When it’s made salty/savory - salt, mild spices and ghee are added (known as ven pongal – ven means white). Sweet pongal, known as chakkara pongal, is boiled with jaggery (raw brown sugar), raisins, nuts and milk. More menu items eaten for pongal here.
How is Pongal eaten?
Ven pongal is eaten with a side of sambar (stew with vegetables and lentils), and vada (lentil donuts) with a side of chutney (Indian salsa made of coconut, tomato or other vegetables). Sweet pongal, depending on the family tradition is actually eaten first or after the meal. Many Indian families I stayed with in Tamil Nadu would eat sweets first for special occasions. It was considered auspicious to put a bit of sweet dish (dessert) on the banana leaf of steel plate to eat before the actual meal items were placed on it.
*As an etiquette note, often in South Indian dishes, and especially pongal and sambar you will find curry leaves, peppercorns and chili peppers in it. People will actually eat with their hand (in most cases) and remove these spices, they are eaten rarely by people. They are added while cooking for taste which absorbs in the food during cooking. It is not considered rude not to eat these spices. In fact, if you do eat them, others may look at you oddly because you would probably notice others not eating these items.
How do people wish Pongal greetings to each other?
“Happy Pongal” is an easy way to greet with the mixture of English. A traditional way of wishing is “Pongal-o Pongal” which is often said right after the pongal has boiled on the stove. In the village, kids would dance and sing ‘Pongal-o Pongal’. Loosely translated this means ‘It’s boiling over, oh! It’s boiling over!”
Is Pongal associated with a religion?
Because Pongal is a harvest festival, anyone can celebrate the harvest, but I would venture to say Hindus are more apt to celebrate this festival than non-Hindus, especially when Indians of various religions move outside India.
Do people give each other gifts on this holiday?
For most holidays, the woman of the house would buy new dresses for each member of the family. People are not giving each other gifts. These new dresses would also not be wrapped and unwrapped, simply presented to god with a prayer then handed to the recipient for use. Also, on Pongal, it is important to clean the house on Bhogi and present the clean home with some new items. Some will buy new kitchen utensils, appliances or other household requirements. My friends actually had bought a new ceiling fan to install after Bhogi.
If I am invited for Pongal to someone’s house, should I bring something?
Bringing a food item may be a best bet, and something vegetarian. Feel free to ask ahead of time. Often Indians would tell you not to bring anything. Then, ask what’s on the menu so far. Once they mention a few items (more menu items listed here), if you can cook or purchase something to take, that could be a good idea. If you do not have access to Indian food, taking fruits like bananas or apples is a good idea. Stay away from cookies and cakes as these have eggs and some people may not want to eat these items. If you want to take a non-food item, kitchen towels or small gadgets for household use may be a good thought (can openers, jar openers, spatulas, etc). When you leave the gathering you may be offered a small parting gift as a token of appreciation, called Thamboolam. I often present my guests a small hand towel used for kitchen chores. More about thamboolam and parting gifts here.
Do people eat meat on Pongal?
My experience is no. Hindus that are non-vegetarians (meat-eaters), as my friends were in the village did not eat meat on Pongal. This includes the sambar- the stew broth is fully vegetarian as well. No eggs, meat or meat products were consumed on this day. Not sure if this is true for everyone, but I would venture to say it’s true for most people.
Are there any symbols associated with this holiday?
Ponga panai, or the earthen pot decorated and used for cooking pongal in. This pot is often decorated with turmeric leaves.
Household doorways are decorated with mango leaves and or [raw] coconut leaves.
Symbols of the sun are used for Surya Pongal and cows and bulls for Maatu pongal.
People also use banana leaves for eating their meals on during Pongal, even in cities.
In addition to these items, “Turmeric tufts, koorai poo, Aavaram poo, banana leaves and mango leaves. Koorai poo is believed to keep evil away and so it is placed in front of houses.” (source)
Many of the symbols of this holiday are recycled in the art and temporary decorations people draw on the ground with rice flour called kolam. Pongal kolangal (kolams) are symmetrically drawn, colorful ground art made with colored rice flour and other items (maybe flowers, grains, etc). Though drawn as a welcome mat daily, for Pongal these ground decorations are specially created with combination of Pongal symbols.
Here is a Pongal Kolam I made last year- in this the yellow is the sun, the orange/rust colored lentil is the pongal pot, the tan grains on top of the pot is the pongal boiling out, the black line between the pots is sugarcane stalks, and the green on top is the sugarcane leaves. (The design was created in a Christmas tree stand for portability and easy clean-up!) Click on photos to see a bigger size.
In this décor from 2007, I have included more symbols of Pongal. The floor decoration (kolam) is on a small portable blackboard. The design is a pongal pot created with various dried beans, including kidney beans, black beans and green lentils. The pongal flowing out of the top is created with poha- or dried, pounded rice flakes. The green stalks to the sides are sugar cane. On the bottom, in toor dhal is written Pongal-o Pongal in Tamil script. Though not traditional in Tamil Nadu for Pongal, I have put up a bommai golu (Dolls display). Tamils may do this for Navarathri (more here), but some Andhrites do put dolls display for Pongal, known as Sankranti in Andhra Pradesh. I coupled these two traditions together. In the décor I tried to add more Pongal symbols. In the pot on the floor is ‘wheat stalks’, on the slightly elevated shelf is a ceramic pot with crushed tissue paper resembling pongal pot, on fireplace mantle a collection of cow toys and statues, and bordering the fireplace are two bamboo rods resembling sugarcane stalks, tied together on top with green twine and with dangling green felt leaves to symbolize the mango leaves. I added in a few ethnically dressed dolls for special effect.
Decorated bull: Sirensongs
(1)Pongal plate with vada and sambar, (2) author making rangoli/kolam: Krishna Kumar
Pongal panai (pot): RamN
Pongal décor: Jennifer Kumar
Thamboolam: Raji Muthukrishnan
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