It is observed by the Tamil community worldwide. It is a magnificent festival of thanksgiving and appreciation for a bountiful harvest. It is celebrated most gloriously in the farming communities across Sri Lanka and India. The ancient rituals and cooking preparations appreciate every positive element associated with agriculture. The pongal dish and the process of its preparation is part of the symbolism, both conceptually and materially. It celebrates the joy of a rewarding harvest. The cooking transforms the gift of agriculture into nourishment for the gods and the community on a day that Tamil’s traditionally believe marks the end of the Winter Solstice and starts the Sun God’s journey northwards. The blessing of abundance by the Goddess Pongal (Uma/Parvati) is symbolically marked with the dish “boiling over”.
According to tradition, the festival marks the end of the winter solstice and the start of the sun’s six-month-long journey northwards when the sun enters the Capricorn. The festival is named after the ceremonial “Pongal”, which means “to boil” and refers to the traditional dish prepared from the new harvest of rice boiled in fresh milk with jaggery. To mark the festival, the Pongal sweet dish is prepared, first reverently offered to the gods and goddesses. It is traditionally an occasion for decorating rice-powder based kolam artworks, offering prayers within the home, kovils, getting together with family and friends, and exchanging gifts to renew social bonds of solidarity.
Thai refers to the name of the 10th month in the Tamil calendar, while Pongal (from pongu) connotes “boiling over” or “overflow.” Pongal is also the name of a sweetened dish of rice boiled in milk and jaggery that is ritually consumed on this day. It is the succulent signature dish of this festival when the entire family gathers with a spirit of overwhelming gratitude. Pongal has its roots in the Sangam Period roughly identified from the sixth century BC to the second century AD. Legends say that the Pongal celebration is not less than 2,000 years old.
The principal theme of Pongal is thanking the Sun God (Surya), the forces of Nature, and the farm animals and people who support agriculture. It shows how important agriculture and dairy farming are, within the Tamil community. Agriculture feeds and sustains human life.
The history of the Pongal dish in a festive and religious context can be traced to the Chola period. It appears in numerous texts and inscriptions with various spellings. The festival’s most significant practice is the preparation of the traditional “pongal” dish. It utilises freshly harvested rice, and is prepared by boiling it in milk and raw cane sugar (jaggery). Sometimes additional ingredients are induced to the sweet dish; they are: cardamom, raisins, green gram (split), and cashew nuts. Other ingredients include coconut and ghee (clarified butter from cow milk). Along with the sweet version of the Pongal dish, some cook other versions such as salty and savoury (venpongal).
In some communities, women take their cooking pots near a kovil of their choice and cook together as a social event. This is embellished with a spiritual aura and also to invoke greater divine blessings. I have witnessed this ritual in my travels to Jaffna, and the atmosphere is very friendly as people come together. The cooking is done in the morning’s sunlight, usually in a porch or courtyard and at times under the shade of a large tree. The Khomba tree is the desired tree as it also denotes purity due to its herbal charm. The cooking is done in a clay pot that is neatly garlanded with leaves or flowers, sometimes tied with a piece of turmeric root or marked with pattern artwork called kolam. It is either cooked at home, or in community gatherings such as in Hindu kovils or village spaces.
The sweet Pongal dish is dedicated to the Sun God, Surya. Surya is one of the major five deities in Hinduism, considered as equivalent deities in Panchayatana puja and means to realising Brahman in the Smarta tradition.Surya is depicted with a Chakra, also interpreted as a Dharmachakra. Surya is the lord of Simha (Leo), one of the 12 constellations in the Zodiac system of Hindu astrology. Surya or Ravi is the basis of Ravivara, or Sunday, in the Hindu calendar. Major Hindu and Tamil festivals and pilgrimages in reverence for Surya include Makar Sankranti, Pongal, Samba Dashami, Ratha Sapthami, Chath puja and Kumbh Mela.
Tamil Hindus decorate their homes with banana and mango leaves and embellish the entrance space before homes, corridors and doors with decorative floral or geometric patterns drawn using coloured rice flour. This ancient design is known as kolam. Since the Tamil population is worldwide, the practice of kolam is found around the world, including Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka and a few other Asian countries. A kolam is a geometrical line drawing composed of straight lines, curves and loops, drawn around a grid pattern of dots. In Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka, it is widely practised by female family members in front of the main entrance to the residence. In cities, the day marks the ritual visit to nearby Hindu kovils for prayers. Kovils and communities hold processions by parading icons from the sanctum of the temple in wooden chariots, drama-dance performances encouraging social gatherings and renewal of community bonds.
Community Pongal is an event where families gather at ceremonial worship. It becomes an important part of the worship, starting from selecting the pot, igniting the fire and other rituals. Sugarcane sticks, bananas and coconuts are also offered. Attukal Pongala is a 10-day religious festival celebrated at the Attukal Bhagavathy Temple in Thiruvananthapuram in the Indian state of Kerala. On the ninth day, there is a huge gathering of millions of women in the kovil surroundings. These women prepare a divine food made of rice in earthen pots and offer it to the Attukal Amma (Goddess of the Temple). The pongala preparation starts with the ritual called ‘Aduppuvettu’. This is the lighting of the pongala hearth placed inside the temple by the chief priest. This is the earliest Pongala festival in Kerala. The festival is marked as the largest annual gathering of women by the Guinness World Records. The ceremony was set up in Guinness Book of World Records on February 23, 1997, when 1.5 million women participated in Pongala. Years later in 2009, a new Guinness World Records celebrated 2.5 million attendance at the kovil. Mattu Pongal is celebrated the day after Surya Pongal. Mattu refers to “cow, bullock, cattle”, and Tamil Hindus regard cattle as a sources of wealth for providing dairy products, fertilizer, transportation and agricultural aid. On Mattu Pongal, cattle are respectfully adorned with flower garlands. Their robust horns are painted. After prayers they are offered bananas, and fed with a special meal and thankfully venerated.
- Dishan Joseph