‘Thai Pongal’ the Harvest Festival of Tamils

By P. Krishnaswamy

After the Christmas and New Year festivities, the focus is now on the Pongal harvest festival, popularly known as Thai Pongal, celebrated in the first four days of the month of Thai in the Tamil-Hindu calendar.

Traditionally, it is the festival of farmers who depend on Mother Earth, the sun, rain, other natural elements and cows and buffaloes for a bountiful harvest of their staple food, rice.

It is a time when the poor, the rich, the villager and the city-dweller offer thanks to the gods, worship the sun, the earth, the cattle and their bounty with devotion.

In Sri Lanka, the festival is celebrated in the North, the East, the Central Hill Country and other areas where Hindus live. Although terrorism was eliminated and peace was restored almost four years ago, for the Tamils of the North, this year’s Thai Pongal is special because all displaced people have been resettled in their original villages and places of residence and they are back in their traditional professions, mainly agriculture and fisheries.

Pongal is uniquely Tamil that it has been designated the ‘State Festival’ in Tamil Nadu. Unlike in Sri Lanka, in Tamil Nadu, Pongal festivities continue in the first four days of Thai.

Four festivals are celebrated in Tamil Nadu over the four days. Houses are cleaned, painted and decorated. People wear new clothes and cattle are gaily caparisoned with beads, bells and flowers – their horns painted and capped with gleaming metal. The first day of Pongal is Bhogi, marked by feasting and merry-making. It is time for the new to replace the old. Huge bonfires are lit and all unwanted items around the house are consigned to the flames. Traditionally all old clay utensils were ritually broken and potters were asked to supply fresh stocks. With the advent of plastics and steel, this ritual has now become symbolic.

Pongal is the only festival of the Hindus that follows a solar calendar and is celebrated on January 14 every year. Pongal has astronomical significance: It marks the beginning of Uttarayana, the Sun’s movement northward for a six-month period. In Hinduism, Uttarayana is considered auspicious, as opposed to Dakshinaayana, or the southern movement of the Sun. All important events are scheduled during this period.

Colourful designs

Makara Sankranthi refers to the Sun entering the zodiac sign of Makara or Capricorn. House-to-house Bajan processions are held beginning from the lean hours of the morning and special Margazhy and Thiruvembavai poojas are performed in temples in Margazhy, the cold month preceding Thai. Throughout the month, front yards and entrances of houses are decorated with Kolam in colourful designs. Kolam is more than an art. It symbolises happiness and prosperity. Insects and birds feed on the rice flour used for drawing the traditional Kolam. Thus, the Kolam represents man’s concern for all living creatures.

Thai is an auspicious period to begin new ventures after the gloomy period of Margazhy. There is a Tamil saying Thai Poranthal Vazhy Porakkum, which means with the dawn of the month, a way for prosperity and happiness will be paved. Pongal signals the end of the traditional farming season, giving farmers a break from their monotonous routine. Farmers also perform pooja to crops, signalling the end of the traditional farming season. It also sets the pace for a series of festivals to follow in a calendar year.

Pongal is the day when the pot of milk and rice must boil over. Early in the morning, before sunrise, the women of the house draw intricate kolam outside their doors. Within the perimeters of kolam, firewood is used to cook the rice. This is the Surya Pongal, the Pongal for the Sun God. In Sri Lanka this and the following day’s Mattu Pongal or Pongal for the cattle are celebrated. The Pongal is set up in direct view of the Sun (East).

Temple bells, drums, clarinets and conch shells herald the joyous occasion of Pongal. To symbolise a bountiful harvest, rice is cooked in new pots until they boil over. Some of the temple rituals are the preparation of rice, chanting of prayers and offering of vegetables, sugar cane and spices to the gods. Devotees then consume the offerings to exonerate themselves of past sins.

The ritual of cooking rice and milk is done in the open, in the fields by farmers and in the courtyards and lawns of homes in the cities and villages at a pre-determined auspicious hour. The cooking area is decorated with flowers, sugarcane, plantain trees, buntings of flower garlands and rice paste. The boiling over of the contents is the auspicious sign that the family waits for and the women folk shout in high pitch “Pongalo, Pongal”. This is an offering to the Sun God and Mother Earth. The cooked preparation, Pongal (made of new rice, milk and jaggery) is offered to the gods along with preparations of vegetables and lentils, newly harvested sugarcane and bananas. Later the family sits down to a ritual meal.

Dedicated to cattle

The following day’s Mattu Pongal is dedicated to cattle. Cattle play an important part in farming, thus Mattu Pongal is the day when the cattle are worshipped and given a day of rest. They are bathed, their horns painted with shining colours and then they are fed and taken to the village centre where the devotees offer them flower garlands.

Mattu Pongal honours cattle

A festival called Jalli Kattu is held in many places in Tamil Nadu, a taming or controlling of the savage bull for a reward for heroism with the participation by young men. 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.

Mattu Pongal honours cattle

Many legends are associated with Pongal celebrations. The two most popular legends are stories related to Lord Siva and Lord Indra.

According to one, once Siva asked his bull, Basava, to go to the earth and ask the mortals to have an oil massage and bath every day and eat once a month. Inadvertently, Basava announced that everyone should eat daily and have an oil bath once a month. This mistake enraged Siva 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.

The other legend says that during Lord Krishna’s childhood, he decided to teach a lesson to Lord Indra who became arrogant after becoming the king of all deities. Lord Krishna asked all cowherds to stop worshipping Lord Indra. This angered Lord Indra who sent forth his clouds for thunderstorms and three days continuous rains. Lord Krishna lifted Mount Govardhan to save the humans.

According to Hindu mythology, this is when the day of the gods begins, after a six-month long night. The festival is spread over three days and is the most important and most fervently-celebrated harvest festival of South India. A special pooja is performed on the first day of Pongal before the cutting of the 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.