Happy Pongal: Dating back to Sangam age, this ancient festival honours Nature!

By Asha Balakrishnan

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There's a  festive feeling of Pongal in the air! Soaking in the beautiful view of the Western Ghats during our annual family road trip to Agumbe, this winter vacation, I stopped by a farm to pick up a few golden-hued rice stalks for dry décor. One of the farmers who were harvesting generously gave me a few stalks and refused to take any money in return. The small talk I had with him made me realize farming is physically and mentally demanding with minimal returns. It also depends on handling uncertainties like weather and pests. So, when their toil yields, their first harvest is to the visible god, Mother Nature. It reminded me of the thanksgiving festival Pongal meaning 'overflow' in Tamizh was just around the corner.

Pongal festival: Origin and History

Most of us who grew up in cities with no village connection have not witnessed the real "Pongal" and its festive vibes. The celebrations are rooted and followed ritually in rural homes. This festival dates back to the Sangam age when forms of nature were revered by man. Social Historians say Pongal was referred as "Indra Vizha" in the ancient Chola seaport of Poompuhaar which is considered the birthplace of the Multi-day festival.

Pongal festival: Customs, cuisine and spiritual significance

Bhogi: The first day of the multi-day festival is Bhogi Pongal. All things old are disposed and are burnt outside the house in a bonfire suggesting the end of the old and the birth of the new. Houses are cleaned, whitewashed and decorated with the first cut of paddy, mango leaves and kolams. This day Lord Indra, the rain god, is honoured whose other name is ‘Bhogi'. The festive spread for the day is payasam, vada and Puran poli along with the regular menu. Spiritually, this day defines that it is not enough to clean externally alone but, one has to clean the mind by burning old bad habits or thoughts and take a firm resolve to tread the path of love and purity.

Surya Pongal: The second day, the main day is Surya Pongal, thanksgiving to the Sun god and beginning of Tamizh month, Thai. The Sun enters the sign of Capricorn (Makara), marking the end of winter and the arrival of spring.

On this day, Chakkara Pongal (sweet) and Ven Pongal (spiced rice) are made with freshly harvested rice in a mud pot (pongu paanai) cooked on a mud stove (aduppu) in open courtyard where the whole family gathers. The neck of the pot is tied with turmeric and ginger plants, signifying auspiciousness and spice of life respectively. On either side of the pot, two fully grown sugarcane plants are kept to signify the arrival of sweetness in life.

When the cooked rice broth overflows out of the pot, it is called 'Pongal' (Tamizh for overflowing).  The overflowing represents abundance and rich harvest. In joy, the people gathered around the pot unite and cheer 'Pongal-O-Pongal'.

Some also chant the 'Aditya Hrudayam' and do Surya Namaskar to the Sun God. To accompany the pongal, a tangy spicy dish called 'Ezhu Thaan Kootu' (7 vegetable stew) is made of 7 seasonal native vegetables. The landlord distributes food, clothes, and money among the labourers who work for him. By being generous, sharing and treating workers well he, in turn, earns their loyalty and love.  A noble act which should be our ideal at all times not just on Pongal, one of the key takeaways from the festival.

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The Sun itself symbolises all that the Pongal festival stands for. The message of light, unity, and impartiality. Without the Sun, life would perish on earth. It is regular in its work, and never claims any recognition. If we imbibe these virtues, we shall shine with equal divine lustre!  The Sun joyously turns northward (Utttarayan) and moves towards us shedding light, warmth and infuses more life and energy.

Mattu Pongal: The third day, Mattu Pongal, is to pay our thanks to the cow, revered as the mother of the universe. The cow is decorated, the horns are painted in vibrant colours. Mixed rice like lemon rice, coconut rice, and curd rice are made along with aviyal (vegetable medley in coconut gravy), and vadams(fryums). These dishes are arranged into a picnic hamper and carried to feast on the beaches, river banks or any picnic spots. Outing events like this helps in forging bonds between people. In the southern districts of Tamil Nadu, a bull taming contest called 'Jalli kattu’ is organized where strong men compete in taming a violent bull. If he tames the bull, he gets the prize money tied to the horns of the bull.

The sibling festival of 'Kanu' is also celebrated on this day. Sisters pray for the well-being of their brothers. Sisters wake up early and place leftovers of the previous day's food (they prepare in excess for this purpose) on turmeric leaves for the crows and birds to eat. They offer prayers that their family should be united like a flock of birds.

Significance of Pongal festival

The festival, in essence, helps the whole universe find a place in one's heart gradually during the course of the celebrations. First, by embracing family and friends with long arms, then the servants and the poor, then the cow, and then all other living creatures which live united in flocks like birds.

The rituals and traditions may have twisted with time, we still do them repeatedly adding new dimensions, but the essence is the same.

Let this season bring change for good and bonds of sweetness and peace prevail everywhere.

(Asha Balakrishnan is a storyteller by passion, with varied interests ranging from reading, organic gardening, blogging, traveling, art and craft and yoga. She keeps her creative mind engaged with activities that give her joy. Views expressed are personal.)