Pongal is a popular harvest festival of Tamil Nadu that marks the first day of the sun's return journey to the northern hemisphere, widely known as Makar Sankranti in India. The festival is celebrated with much enthusiasm, quite like Thanksgiving in America. It's an important occasion because the state largely relies on agriculture to generate an income, and the sun is necessary for good growth. Pongal is also the name of the dish that's prepared and means "boiling over" or "spilling over" in Tamil, signifying abundance and prosperity.
A harvest in January though? It isn't common in the western world but India's hot and monsoonal climate enables two growing seasons.
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 2021, 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 to get rid of any negativity. 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.
On the main Pongal day, people gather to cook the Pongal dish facing east towards the rising sun. It's offered to the Sun God during prayers, and later served for lunch.
Popular attractions on the third and fourth day of Pongal are bull races (Manju virattu), bull fights (Jallikattu), and bird fights. However, there's been a great push to outlaw such activities in recent years. Nevertheless, the bull fight in Madurai is still a big tourist attraction. Jallikattu takes place in villages across the state as well. A major bull race is also held on the fourth day at Kuilapalayam village near Auroville.
If you're in Chennai in the week before Pongal, don't miss the Mylapore Festival that's held there.
A special International Pongal Festival also takes place just before the start of Pongal at Bremajothi Farms near Tuticorin, about two hours up the coast from Kanyakumari. It blends ancient tradition with hip genres of arts and music.
Trichy Tourism Federation holds a pongal celebration for tourists at Esanapatti village a few days before pongal. Attractions include local cultural performances and cuisine.
Thanjavur Tourism Promotion Council organizes a similar cultural festival for tourists at Nanjikottai village in the run up to Pongal. There are traditional games, folk dances, astrology, making clay pots, and cooking of rice.
What Rituals are Performed During Pongal?
In addition to cleaning their homes on the first day of the festival, people undertake a special ritual to honor Indra the rain god for providing enough rain for a prosperous harvest. Farmers anoint their implements with sandalwood paste as well.
On the main Pongal day (the second day, called Surya Pongal or Thai Pongal), the Sun God is worshiped to seek blessings for an abundant harvest.
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 plowing. Carnival-like celebrations take place in the streets. In Thanjavur, owners line their cows up for blessings at the Big Temple.
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 fun family day out.
What is the Pongal Dish?
The most important part of the Pongal festival is cooking the Pongal dish. There are a couple of types of pongal. The main one that's made for the festival is Sakkarai pongal. This sweet version of the dish is made with rice, milk, ghee, and jaggery (a type of unrefined sugar).
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". Beautifully decorated clay pots are sold in markets all over Tamil Nadu in the lead up to the festival.
The other type of pongal is a savory dish called Ven pongal. To make it, rice is mixed with moong daal and cooked with ghee, cashew nuts, raisins, black pepper and spices to replace the sweetener. This dish is commonly consumed for breakfast along with sambar or chutney.
See pictures of how Pongal is celebrated in this Pongal Festival Photo Gallery.