The great diversity of Indian religious beliefs and the varied cultural traditions of different States are very interesting. This is seen in the festival of Pongal. Pongal is celebrated all over the South as Makar Sankranti. In Tamil Nadu, it has an additional significance. It welcomes the occasion of the incoming harvest.
The Puranas, usually prolific in legends connected with festivals, have little to say about this festival. It is in all probability a Dravidian harvest festival. Perhaps it has survived the influence of the Indo-Aryan religion in the South.
There is a beautiful Tamil composition of the ancient Sangam period. It was known for the ancient Tamil academics. This charming composition describes the joy of a love-born young woman on the return of her husband from the battlefield. Her happiness is likened to the month before Pongal.
With the end of rains, the 'kaya' flowers blossom, the tender 'Konrai' flowers shower their golden pollen on the ground, the white 'kandal' flowers blossom, tender 'Konrai' plant is in full bloom. With receding clouds, the female and male deer are making love in the fields.
This poem describes the mood of anticipation and excitement of the people in Tamil Nadu, which gets its main rains from the northeastern monsoon in October and November. The harvest is gathered in the period just preceding this Pongal festival.
This festival of Pongal falls in the month of January after the winter solstice. As such, this Pongal festival marks the favourable course of the Sun. It is a three-day festival. The fourth day is a day for outdoors and excursions.
The first day is celebrated as the Bhogi Pongal. It is usually meant for domestic activities and of being together with the family members. This first day is celebrated in honour of Lord Indra, the supreme ruler of clouds that give rains. Homage is paid to Lord Indra for the abundance of harvest, thereby bringing plenty and prosperity to the land.
An interesting story is told. Indra Dev, being worshipped by all on this day, became proud and arrogant. To teach him a lesson, Lord Krishna asked his shepherd friends to worship Mount Govardhan on Bhogi Pongal day, instead of Indra. Terribly enraged, Indra sent forth the seven clouds to bring forth thunder, lightning and heavy rains to cause deluge to destroy the shepherds.
But Lord Krishna lifted up the Govardhan Mountain under which the shepherds and their cattle got full shelter. Then Indra begged ' Krishna's forgiveness. Once more Lord Krishna allowed Bhogi celebrations to continue in honour of Indra. There is a beautiful carving at Mahabalipuram showing Krishna lifting Govardhan.
On this day before Sun rise a huge bonfire is lit in front of the houses. All the useless household things are thrown into the fire. The burning of all that is old is symbolic of the starting of a fresh new year. The bonfire is kept burning throughout the night. Boys beat little drums known by the name 'Bhogi Kottus'. These are made from the hides of buffaloes.
The harvest of rice, turmeric and sugarcane is brought in. It is kept ready for the next day's festivities. Homes are cleaned till they literally shine. They are adorned with 'Kolam' designs drawn with white paste of newly harvested rice and outlines of the Kolam designs with red mud. In villages, yellow pumpkin flowers are set out in cow-dung balls in the middle of the designs.
The second day of Pongal is known as Surya Pongal. It is dedicated to the Sun God. On this day the granaries are full. Sun shines brightly. Trees are in full bloom. Bird-songs resound in the air. Hearts overflow with happiness that gets translated into colourful and joyous celebrations. A plank is placed on the ground. Kolam designs are drawn on its sides.
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. Prayers are rendered to the Sun God to seek his benedictions.
The word Pongal literally has two connotations. Firstly it is the name of the special dish cooked on this day. Secondly the word Ponga means boil. So the word Pongal means that which is overflowing. The preparation of this special dish needs a new mud-pot called Pongapani. On this artistic designs are drawn. The village fair, where these pots of different shapes and designs are sold, is truly an aesthetic treat for the eyes to behold.
So it is also the specially set up colourful sugarcane market. While the 'Puja' is being performed, the neck of the Pongapani is tied with fresh turmeric and fresh ginger saplings with tender green leaves.
The green leaves are symbolic of prosperity, the turmeric of auspiciousness, ginger for the spice of life. The special dish called 'Sarkkarai Pongal' is cooked in this mud-pot. After the rituals of puja are over, 'Sarkkarai Pongal' with sticks of sugarcane is offered to the Sun god. It is the thanksgiving for the plentiful harvest. Sugarcane is offered for sweetness and happiness in life.
It is said that on this day, Lord Sundareshwar in the Madurai temple performed a miracle and breathed life into a stone elephant, which could eat sugarcane. The carving of this event is in Meenakshi temple. From this month of Thai starts the marriage season in Tamil Nadu.
The third day is Mattu Pongal. It is the festival of cattle. To the village people cow, the giver of milk and the bull, which draws the plough in the fields, are very valuable. The farmers honour their dumb friends by celebrating it as a day of thanksgiving to them.
The cattle are bathed. Their horns are painted and covered with shining metal caps. Multi-coloured beads, tinkling bells, sheet's corn and flower garlands are tied around their necks. They are fed with Pongal and taken to the village centers. The resounding of their bells attract the villagers as the young men race each other's cattle. The entire atmosphere becomes festive and full of fun and revelry.
Big commotion is seen when the game 'Manji Virattu' starts. In this, groups of young men chase the running bulls.
In some places 'Jallikattu' is arranged. It is a bullfight. In this, moneybags are tied to the horns of ferocious bulls and unarmed young men are asked to wrest them from the bull's horns.
On the Mattu Pongal day, Lord Ganesh and Goddess Parvati are worshipped and Pongal is offered to them in the 'Puja'.
This day is also known by the name of Kanu Pongal. Girls place coloured balls of cooked rice in the open for the birds and crows to eat. With each ball of rice that the sister makes, she prays for her brother's happiness. Brothers and sisters, wherever they may be, remember each other.
Community dinners are also held. In this rich and poor, the landlord and the peasant, the old and the young, women and children, all dine together forgetting the distinction of caste or class. All share in the spirit of bonhomie.
Pongal is a festival when god is praised with simple faith and sincerity. Old vices are all washed out. All that is good is welcomed in this New Year. This festival is for all living things. Man, his beast, his crop, the birds that fly in the sky, making man look up to the heaven in joy and thankfulness to God for everything that He gives to man, especially peace and happiness and the feeling of brotherhood.