Festival of Tamils  
An Introduction to Pongal

Tamils
1 all over the world celebrate the harvest festival of Pongal2 during the month of January. Pongal is a four-day festival traditionally celebrated in the southeastern part of India and in Sri Lanka. This festival pays tributes to the Sun and to the cattle that help farmers in their livelihood. Owing to cultural diversity within the Tamil community, each day of the festival comes with its own flavor in each region of the contemporary Tamil heartland! After the hectic northeast monsoon rains in the southern part of India, crops are ready for harvest by January. Sunny skies and anticipation of a bountiful harvest keep peasants in a right mood to indulge in a long celebration.

After the monsoon the fruit of the hard work awaits harvest.
Sprawling rice paddy fields are common sight in Tamil country. Towering coconut groves are in the background.

The first day of the celebration is Bohi3, which falls on the last day of the month of Margazhi as per Tamil calendar.  Tidying up homes is a typical practice on this day in most places. This day is also an occasion for parents to send gifts, called Varisai, to the households of their married daughters. These gifts are usually in the form of farm products such as rice, sugarcane, turmeric, coconut, ripened banana etc. However, sending gifts in the form of money is also not uncommon these days!

A senior person of the household performs the inaugural customs before Pongal. On the left is make-shift clay and brick stove. Fire wood kept nearby. The offering mound is partly visible in the foreground.

The next day, the primary day of the festivities, called Pongal2, falls on the first day of the auspicious month of Thai in Tamil calendar4, This in fact is a thanksgiving day for the Sun. Though the entire family participates, women and children play an active role in it.  In the countryside, in the morning, people set up makeshift clay stoves outside their homes, usually in the main entrance area. The stove and its immediate surroundings are decorated with drawings called Kolams, done using dry rice flour. Using new terracotta vessels, sweetened rice (from fresh harvest, sweetened with jaggery, milk and raisins) is cooked on these stoves. The Sun, whose day it is, directly looks down upon the event gracefully.  After sweetened rice preparation, along with other special items for the day, primary of which is karumbu (sugarcane), a Padayal or offering is made to Sun. Later, the entire family enjoys the feast. Children particularly like the sweetened rice, which is not part of every day menu!

The offering mound (Padayal area) has several items used on this day. Unused baked terracotta wares, wooden spoons made of coconut shell and bamboo, turmeric plant with intact tuber, husked coconut, banana etc. The machete at the lower left is a handy tool for cracking coconut. Note Kolam drawings in white.

The following day is Maattupongal5, thanksgiving day for the cattle. Men and women have distinct roles to play on this day. As opposed to the previous day, Mattupongal has the distinction of being a community celebration, with several households or clans coming together in some open area near their houses, in the evening. Cows and bulls are given a bath, their horns are painted colorfully, necks are decorated with garlands and they are particularly fed well with fresh green grass instead of routine hay! In the mean time women, particularly young girls decorate the floors of their homes with drawings made out of watery rice flour (MaaKolam). Decorated cattle are brought to the open area where the men assemble and made to stand in order. Simultaneously, men dig-up large cooking spots in the ground. Large metal vessels are used to cook rice that had been collected from participating households. Cooked rice is spread on plantain leaves placed on temporary mounds and strewn with jaggery, grated coconut and crushed ripened banana. This again is a form of sweetened rice. After a Padayal, cattle are given symbolic ‘oil bath’ and symbolic ‘feeding’ with this rice preparation. Then the entire community shares the food. In many places women and very young children are kept off the event, perhaps in view of large gatherings of cattle to avoid any mishaps.
Pongal, the rice boiling, in brass vessels. Though used to be caly, these metal pots are common these days, symbolizing change in culture as well.

Rice pots, one for sweetend and the other for plain rice, are tied with turmetic plants. Clay pot has  Sambar on the left. Three terminal pieces of banana leaves with offerings. Though traditionally done, the importance of three instead of one leaf is not clear.

The last day of the celebration is very diverse and is called by various names, such as Kannupongal, Kannipongal, Kaanumpongal etc. Sporting activity is the hallmark of this day.  Particularly groomed bulls are put into action on this day and young men try to overwhelm the bulls in their attempt to fetch the bounty that goes to the winner. Jallikkattu and Manjuvirattu are two forms this sport. Coconut fight, in which one person tries to crack open his opponents’ husked coconut are also common. Apart from these traditional games, various other kinds of games are also in vogue for children and girls. In urban areas, on this day, younger members of families visit their elders to exchange pleasantries.

On the Mattuppongal day, cattle horns wear fresh paint and homemade garlands made of leaves and flowers are tied around the neck, and fed fresh grass.

Pallayam on the Padayal Mound on Mattuppongal day. Over cooked rice is spread on large banana leaves in rectangular shape. Crushed jaggery, pasted ripe banana and grated coconut are strewn over the rice in layers. This tastefully made Pongal is taken (see bottom right of the Pallayam) for feeding cattle symbolically. After cattle are 'fed', the leftover is shared among the participants.  

Harvest festival is celebrated in different parts of India, though they are called by different names in different regions, Sankaranthi (Sankranti), Bhoghi, to name a few. Pongal celebration is one such 'cultural' festival, celebrated by Tamils living around the world. As Indians, Tamils have a myriad of functions to celebrate, but perhaps Pongal is the only festival Tamils have for themselves to connect with their Tamil cultural roots.6


References
  1. Tamil is an ancient and prolific language that belongs to the Daravidian family of languages. Other prominent languages in this family are Kannada, Malayalam and Telugu. Members of Tamil speaking ethnic group are called Tamils and are native to Tamil Nadu in southern India and northeastern Sri Lanka and also dispersed in other countries like Australia, Canada, Fiji, Guyana, Kenya, Malaysia, Mauritius, Myanmar, Singapore, South Africa, Surinam, USA, Europe and Persian Gulf region, to name a few. Number of Tamil speaking population around the world is estimated to be over 70 million. It should be noted that there are a large number of migrants to Tamil Nadu (who speak Tamil, but have different mother tongues) since the time before the Vijayanagar Empire (1346-1565 AD). Over a period of time these 'lingustic outsiders' have slowely embedded into the cultural ambience and have become 'cultural insiders' and celebrate Pongal as their own. Nevertheless, it is also distinctly visible that certain number of 'native' Tamils, who are non-hindus, refrain from involving in Pongal celebration, fearing religious blasphemy.
  2. Also known as Veettupongal, Vaasalpongal, Suryapongal etc. Literally the term Pongal means 'boiling' or ‘boiling over’.
  3. Also known as Pohi or Bhogi  etc.
  4. Pongal day usually falls on January 14 in Gregorian calendar, but sometimes on January 15 in leap years or if any adjustments are made in Tamil traditional calendar. Tamil month of Margazhi encompas mid December to mid January and Thai emcompas mid January to mid February. To learn more about Indian and Tamil calendar you may refer to this article from the National University of Singapore.
  5. Literally this means 'Pongal for cow ( or bull)'.
  6. This is particularly true for Tamil diaspora from British colonial period, who are now 'socially delinked' from their ancestral Tamil homeland, but have established a niche for themselves in their adapted lands. To signify the importance of Pongal for Tamils, the entire Pongal celebrations are referred to as Thamizhar thirunaal, the festival of Tamils.

Acknowledgements and Notes. Anandhi Narayanaswamy and Ravikumar Aalinkeel are acknowledged for manuscript correction. This synthesis is from personal observations of Pongal in Mannankadu (Mannangadu) and its surroundings in Thanjavur district of Tamil Nadu, India. This article was originally written in 2005 was hosted in several servers before finding its current location. This article may be available elsewhere in the web. Updated on January 19, 2013. 
Duraiswamy Navaneetham. Festival of Tamils An Introduction to Pongal © 2005