In India, from the time people have been planting and gathering food, harvest festivals have been celebrated in some form or the other and sometimes in a pompous way. Pongal, is one of those most popular harvest festivals of India which is celebrated in Tamil Nadu, a famous state in South India. Pongal is a four day Hindu festival of thanksgiving when the people of Tamil Nadu shower their heartfelt thanks to Mother Nature. It is a celebration of the life cycles which feeds us grains. In Tamil, the word ‘Pongal’ means ‘to boil’ and the Tamils celebrate this auspicious occasion sometime in between January to February, the period they call ‘Thai’ in their regional language.
‘Thai’ is the season when cereal grains like rice, turmeric and sugar cane blossom in the lush fields of Tamil Nadu and since all of these three form the essential most ingredients in any Tamil cooking, the festival of Pongal is celebrated during this time. This quintessential 'Tamil Festival' falls typically in the middle of January, on 14th or 15th of the month. One of the popular faiths, which, attaches itself with this sacred occasion is that that the knotty family problems come to an end as the holy month of Thai begins. This marks the beginning of the Pongal festival in Tamil Nadu and this is the month when most Tamils prefer to get married. After all, this period is considered the ideal time for tying the sacred knot of marriage.
So, the very first day of this holy occasion of Pongal is flagged off with offerings to Lord Indra, the God of clouds who brings rains. On the same day is celebrated the Bhogi Mantalu. Useless articles of the household are burnt in the flames of firewood and cow dung cakes, with women singing and dancing around the bonfire. The second day of the harvest festival witnesses the ceremonial worship of the Sun God. This day which is known as Surya Pongal, is followed by an interesting ritual when husbands and wives in their traditional attires dispose of the utensils which were used in the puja or the worship.
The third day of Pongal begins with another beautiful celebration which is known as Mattu Pongal, meaning the Pongal of cows. Cows on this day are adorned in tinkling bells and garlands of flower, corn and beads and are worshipped with all devotion. Knau or Kannum marks the fourth day of this harvest festival of Tamil Nadu. Every woman, young and old, of the household assemble in the courtyard to offer prayers for their brothers. Thai Pongal is often referred to as Makara Sankaranthi and it marks the entering of Sun into the Makara Rasi (Capricornus). This signifies the onset of the spring season as the winter season comes to a close.
The month of Thai is also known as Uttarayan Punyakalam, traditionally. As the Legend of this period goes, this is the time when the Devas in the heaven wake up after a six months old slumber. The popular faith that goes with it is that people, who pass away during this auspicious period of Uttarayana, attain moksha or salvation. In fact, the legendary Bheeshma of Mahabharata is said to have waited till the dawn of Uttarayana before leaving his body for the heavenly abode. Thus, Pongal is a celebration of thanksgiving to the bountiful nature, a festival to immortalize the legends and a season of performing the sacred most activities.