Guide to Celebrating 2018 Pongal Festival

Tamil Nadu's Popular Harvest Thanksgiving Festival

Making the Pongal dish.
••• Making the Pongal dish. Dinodia Photo/Getty Images

Pongal is a popular harvest festival of Tamil Nadu that marks the return of the sun to the northern hemisphere. It's celebrated with much enthusiasm, quite like Thanksgiving in America. The festival is an important one because much of the state relies on agriculture to generate an income. Pongal actually means "boiling over" or "spilling over" in Tamil, signifying abundance and prosperity.

When is Pongal?

Pongal is celebrated at the same time every year, at the start of the Tamil month, Thai.

It always commences on January 13 or 14. In 2018, Pongal takes place from January 13-16. The main festivities occur on January 14.

Where is it Celebrated?

Pongal is widely celebrated in southern India, particularly in the state of Tamil Nadu.

How is it Celebrated?

On the first day (Bhogi Pongal), houses are thoroughly cleaned and decorated. The entrances are adorned with rangoli (kolam). You'll be able to see colorful kolams in the streets everywhere, early in the morning! People buy new clothes and take oil baths. During the festival, families gather to feast and dance.

Popular attractions on the third and fourth day of Pongal used to be bull fights and bird fights, particularly Jallikattu in Madurai. However, there's been a great push to outlaw such activities in recent years. Nevertheless, the bull fight in Madurai is still a major tourist attraction. Jallikattu takes place in villages across the state as well.

If you're in Chennai in the week before Pongal, don't miss the Mylapore Festival that's held there.

What Rituals are Performed During Pongal?

On the main Pongal day (the second day, called Surya Pongal or Thai Pongal), the Sun God is worshiped. This day corresponds with Makar Sankranti, the winter harvest festival celebrated throughout India, which marks the start of the sun’s six month journey north and warmer weather.

People also gather in their homes to cook the Pongal dish. It's offered to the Sun God during prayers, and later served for lunch.

The third day (Mattu Pongal), is dedicated to worshiping the farm animals, particularly cows -- and they're decorated for the occasion! Most farmers still use bulls, bullock carts, and traditional implements for ploughing.

On the fourth day (Kanya Pongal), birds are worshiped. Balls of cooked rice are prepared and left out for birds to eat. People also thank family and friends for their support during the harvest. This day is commonly celebrated as a family day out.

What is the Pongal Dish?

The most important part of the Pongal festival is cooking the Pongal dish. Venpongal is made with rice mixed with moong daal, and cooked with ghee, cashew nuts, raisins, and spices. There's also a sweet version of pongal called Sakkarai pongal. It's made with jaggery (a type of unrefined sugar) instead of spices.

The pongal is cooked in clay pots, on stoves made with stones and wood used as fuel. When it starts to boil over, everyone shouts out "pongalo pongal".

See pictures of how Pongal is celebrated in this Pongal Festival Photo Gallery.