Lasting for over four days Pongal, a harvest festival is celebrated in the month of Shravan. Pongal literally means, "boiling over". The Tamil harvest festival is celebrated with decorated cows, processions and decorative Rangoli. Pongal is a sweet porridge made from newly harvested rice and eaten by all, even the animals. 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. It is widely celebrated in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka.
The festival is celebrated for four days. On, the first day, Bhogi, the old clothes and materials are thrown away and fired, marking the beginning of a new life. The second day, the Pongal day, is celebrated by boiling fresh milk early in the morning and allowing it to boil over the vessel - a tradition that is the literal translation for Pongal (in Tamil). People also prepare savories and sweets, visit each other's homes, and exchange greetings.
The third day, Mattu Pongal, is meant to offer thanks to the cows and buffaloes, as they are used to plough the lands. Jallikattu, a violent taming the bull contest, marks this day. On the last day, Kanum Pongal, people go out to picnic. During the Pongal season, people eat sugar canes and decorate the houses with Kolam.
Even though Pongal was originally a festival for the farming community, today it is celebrated by all. Coinciding with Makara Sankranti and Lohri of the north, it is also called Pongal Sankranti and thus celebrated in some form in various parts of India.
Bogi festival or Bhogi is the first day of Pongal and is celebrated in honor of Lord Indra, "the God of Clouds and Rains". Lord Indra is worshiped for the abundance of harvest, thereby bringing plenty and prosperity to the land. Thus, this day is also known as Indran. On Bhogi all people clean out their homes from top to bottom, and collect all unwanted goods. This day is meant for domestic activities and of being together with the family members.
All the houses from the richest to the humblest are thoroughly scrubbed and whitewashed. Homes are cleaned and decorated with "Kolam" - floor designs drawn in the white paste of newly harvested rice with outlines of red mud. Often pumpkin flowers are set into cow-dung balls and placed among the patterns. Fresh harvest of rice, turmeric and sugarcane is brought in from the field as preparation for the following day.
Puja: A special puja is performed on the first day of Pongal before the cutting of paddy. Farmers worship the sun and the earth by anointing their ploughs and sickles with sandalwood paste. It is with these consecrated tools that the newly-harvested rice is cut.
The Bonfire: Another ritual observed on this day is Bhogi Mantalu, when useless household articles are thrown into a fire made of wood and cow-dung cakes. Girls dance around the bonfire, singing songs in praise of the gods, the spring and the harvest. The significance of the bonfire, in which is burnt the agricultural wastes and firewood is to keep warm during the last lap of winter.
In Andhra Pradesh this day is celebrated by girls burning their old clothes and wearing the new ones after an oil massage and bath. Then follows Pongal Panai, a ritual in which new earthenware pots are painted and decorated with turmeric, flowers and mango leaves.
The second day of Pongal is known as 'Surya Pongal' and is dedicated to the Sun God. It is the day on which the celebration actually begins and is also the first day of the Tamil month Thai. On this day the granaries are full, the sun shines brightly, trees are in full bloom, bird-songs resound in the air and hearts overflow with happiness that get translated into colorful and joyous celebrations.
Puja Preparation: Women wake early on this day to create elaborate 'kolam' on the grounds in front of their doorway or home. Kolam is created with colored rice flour placed on the ground carefully by using one's hand. The women take several hours to finish the kolum. On this day the new rice is collected and cooked in pots until they over flow. It is this overflowing which means Pongal. This overflowing of rice is a joyous occasion, and the children and adults as well will shout out 'Pongal-o-Pongal!'
Surya Pongal Puja Process: The Sun God is offered boiled milk and jaggery. A plank is placed on the ground, a large image of the Sun God is sketched on it and Kolam designs are drawn around it. In the centre of the plank is drawn a large figure of the Sun God with his effulgent rays. The "Puja" of the Sun God starts after the auspicious moment of the birth of the new month Thai. Prayers are rendered to the Sun God to seek his benedictions.
The Sun God is given pride of place during Pongal. In the villages, people gather in the courtyard and prepare the Pongal in the open. The pot in which the Pongal is cooked is decorated with flowers, sugarcane pieces, turmeric plant etc. The first offering is made to the Sun.
Surya Pongal Delicacies: 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 chakra pongal, chakrai meaning sweet. To accompany the venpongal, people eat brinjal (eggplant) sambar (stew), vadai, idli and spicy accompaniments.
Sweets, puddings, cooked rice or 'Sarkarai Pongal' are prepared on this day. On all the three days of Bhogi, Pongal and Maattu Pongal, women adorn the entrance of their houses with colorful kolams. Large patterns, decorated with colorful flowers and powders are drawn, crowding the entire street.
The third day of Pongal is dedicated to cattle and is called Mattu Pongal. People offer prayers to the bulls, cows and other farm animals. Cows and bulls have always held a special place in India. Cows give nourishing milk while bulls and oxen help plough the fields. Thus, Maatu Pongal is a day when cattle are given a well deserved day of rest and are given pride of place. Therefore the farmers honor their cattle friends by celebrating it as a day of thanks-giving to them.
Legend: On this day, Lord Ganesh and Goddess Parvati are worshiped and Pongal is offered to them in the 'puja'. According to a legend, once Shiva asked his bull, Basava, to go to the earth and ask the mortals to have an oil massage and bath every day and to eat once a month. Inadvertently, Basava announced that everyone should eat daily and have an oil bath once a month. This mistake enraged Shiva who then cursed Basava, banishing him to live on the earth forever. He would have to plough the fields and help people produce more food. Thus the association of this day with cattle.
Puja Process: The cattle are washed, their horns are painted and covered with shining metal caps. Multi-colored beads, tinkling bells, sheaves of corn and flower garlands are tied around their necks. They are fed with Pongal and taken to the village centres. Devotees pay their respect to cows 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).
Jallikattu- A Bull Festival: A festival called Jallikattu is held in Madurai, Tiruchirapalli and Tanjavur on this day. Bundles of money are tied to the horns of ferocious bulls which the villagers try to retrieve. Everyone joins in the community meal, at which the food is made of the freshly harvested grain. This day is named and celebrated as Tamizhar Tirunal in a fitting manner throughout Tamil Nadu.
The fourth day of the three-day Pongal celebrations is called Kaanum Pongal. In few places this day is also known as Karinaal or Thiruvalluvar Day. It is dedicated to the sun god, Surya and has its roots in ancient Brahminical tradition. Since Pongal is a rural, agrarian based festival that celebrates the harvests, the sun is a vital part of the proceedings. This is because the Sun is the symbol of life on Earth. Without the Sun, crops cannot sprout and grow. Without the Sun, harvests will not be plentiful.
Surya Puja: On Kaanum Pongal, elaborate powdered chalk designs of the sun god, Surya are drawn. As soon as the auspicious month of Thai is underway, Surya is worshiped. Sheaves of sugarcane dot the prayer area. Freshly cooked food including the typical sweet dish 'Sarkarai pongal' is first offered to Surya. Sugarcane that is offered is symbolic for sweetness and happiness in life. Sugarcane stalks and coconut- both auspicious symbols of plenty- are also offered to the Gods in propitiation of a plentiful harvest in the forthcoming year
Customs & Rituals: This day is very similar to Rakhsa Bandhan and Bhai Dhuj in that it is predominantly a festival where women offer prayers for the wellbeing of their brothers. The women perform this ritual before bathing in the morning. All the women, young and old, of the house, assemble in the courtyard. The rice is placed in the centre of the leaf, while the women ask that the house and family of their brothers should prosper. Arati is performed for the brothers with turmeric water, limestone and rice, and this water is sprinkled on the kolam in front of the house.
Celebration: On this day, people travel to see other family members and the younger members of the family pay homage to the elders, and the elders thank them by giving token money. Another thing many do is leave food out on banana leaves for birds to take. Many South Indian people 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. Some also go to temple to worship and thank god for all good things that are bestowed on them.