Thai Pongal: The Harvest Festival of South India


Myself 

By T. V. Antony Raj

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Happy Pongal

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The Tamils in Tamilnadu, Puducherry, Sri Lanka, and Malaysia, celebrate the festival called Pongal (பொங்கல்) or Thai Pongal (தைப்பொங்கல்). This festival marks the end of the harvest season. The farmers thank the Sun, the principal energizer that helps to reap a bountiful harvest.

In Tamilnadu and Puducherry, Pongal is a four-day festival. It begins on the last day of the Tamil month Maargazhi and culminates on the third day of the Tamil month Thai (January 13 to January 16 in the Gregorian calendar).

The Tamil word Pongal means “overflowing” signifying abundance and prosperity. “Thai Pirandhal Vazhi Pirakkum” meaning “the birth of Thai heralds new prospects” is an oft-quoted popular saying among the Tamils.

The four days of Pongal are: Bhogi Pandigai, Thai Pongal, Maatu Pongal, and Kaanum Pongal.

First day: Bhogi Pandigai

In Tamil, the first day of the festival, namely the day preceding Pongal, is known as Bhogi Pandigai. Telugu people in Andhra Pradesh too observe this day and call it “Bhogi“.

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Bhogi Pandigai (Source - mylaporetimes.com)
Bhogi Pandigai (Source – mylaporetimes.com)

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In Tamilnadu and Andhra Pradesh people light bonfires at dawn and burn the derelict items found in their household. This practice is like Holika in North India.

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Pongal Kolam (Photo - T.V. Antony Raj)
My neighbours creating the Pongal Kolam (Photo – T.V. Antony Raj)

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Next, they clean their house, whitewash and paint it if necessary, and decorate the house with banana and mango leaves and embellish the floor with kolams or rangoli (decorative patterns) drawn using brightly coloured rice powder / chalk / chalk powder / white rock powder.

In villages, owners of cattle paint the horns of oxen and buffaloes in bright colours.

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Elders showering ‘bhogi pallu’ on children at a programme organised by Sri Gayatri Welfare Assocation and Cultural Youth Academy in Visakhapatnam. (Photo: C.V. Subrahmanyam / thehindu.com)
Elders showering ‘bhogi pallu’ on children at a programme organised by Sri Gayatri Welfare Association and Cultural Youth Academy in Visakhapatnam. (Photo: C.V. Subrahmanyam / thehindu.com)

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In Andhra Pradesh, in a ceremony called Bhogi-pallu, elders shower a mix of ‘regi-pallu‘, flower petals, pieces of sugarcane, coins and jaggery on children attired in colourful ‘langa-voni’ and other traditional wear.  Elders conduct this ceremony to ward off the evil eye from the children and bless them with abundance and long life.

Second day: Thai Pongal

The second day of the four days of Pongal is the principal day of the festival. This day is known as Thai Pongal by the Tamils which they celebrate on the first day of the Tamil month of Thai (January 14). All the states in India  also celebrate this day which coincides with Makara Sankranthi, a winter harvest festival. On this day the Sun begins its six-month long journey northwards or the Uttarayanam. This also represents the Indic solstice when the sun enters Makara (Capricorn), the 10th house of the Indian zodiac

In Tamil Nadu, Puducherry, Sri Lanka, and Malaysia it is celebrated as Thai Pongal.

In Andhra Pradesh, Bengal, Bihar, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Manipur, Orissa, Uttar Pradesh it is celebrated as Makara Sankranthi.

Gujarathis and Rajasthanis celebrate it as Uttarayana.

In Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Punjab it is celebrated as Lohri.

Assamese celebrated it as Magh Bihu or Bhogali Bihu.

Nepaesel celebrate it as Maghe Sankranti or Makar Sankranti.

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Thai Pongal - Boiling milk

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In Tamilnadu, it is a tradition for the housewives to boil milk in a new clay pot at dawn. When the milk boils and spills over the vessel, the folk blow the sanggu (a conch) shout “Pongalo Pongal!” Tamils consider it an auspicious to watch the milk boil over as it connotes good luck and prosperity.

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Chakkarai Pongal

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Later, the women prepare Pongal by boiling rice with fresh milk and jaggery in new clay pots. When the rice is half-cooked, sugar, ghee, cashew nuts and raisins are added to the pot. This traditional preparation of sweet rice or Chakkarai Pongal derives its name from the festival.

Newly cooked rice is first offered to the Sun at sunrise as gratitude for a bountiful harvest. Women prepare savouries and sweets such as vadai, murukku, paayasam which they share with their neighbours.

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Third day: Maattu Pongal

Maattu Pongal (Source: happy-2013.blogspot.com)
Maattu Pongal (Source: happy-2013.blogspot.com)

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Cattle are important to life in rural India. They are a form of wealth to the rural folks.

The Tamils of Tamil Nadu celebrate Maattu Pongal (மாட்டுப் பொங்கல்) on the day after the Thai Pongal day. This day is also celebrated in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka.

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Maattu Pongal (Source - tamilrasigan.wordpress.com)

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The rural folk show their affection to their cattle by applying kungumam (kumkum) on their cattle’s foreheads and garlanding them. A mixture of venn pongal (sweetened rice), jaggery, banana, sugar cane and other fruits.

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Youths trying to tame a bull at a jallikattu held at Idaiyathur, near Ponnamaravathy, in Pudukottai district, Tamilnadu, India (Source - thehindu.com)
Youths trying to tame a bull at a jallikattu held at Idaiyathur, near Ponnamaravathy, in Pudukottai district, Tamilnadu, India (Source – thehindu.com)

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In many parts of Tamilnadu, youth take part in the adventurous game of Jallikkattu also known as Manju Virattu, or taming the ferocious bulls, to test their valour.

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Fourth day: Kaanum Pongal

People throng the Marina beach to celebrate Kaanum Pongal in Chennai (Phot: R. Ravindran/thehindu.com)
People throng the Marina beach to celebrate Kaanum Pongal in Chennai (Phot: R. Ravindran/thehindu.com)

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Kaanum Pongal is an auspicious day for family reunions for Tamils in Tamilnadu.

The Tamil word “kaanum” means “to view”. Siblings pay special tribute to their married brothers and sisters by giving gifts as a token of their filial love. People visit relatives and friends to rejoice the festive season. People have a day out with their families on river banks, beaches and theme parks.

Kaanum Pongal culminates the end of the Pongal festivities for the year.

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