How Pongal Is Celebrated
Are you familiar with the diverse items, practices and traditions associated with Pongal? Read on to learn about the significance of these customs, the legends associated with them and more.
By Amrita Gracias • 8 min read
Come January, Tamil Nadu gears up to celebrate one of the most significant festivals of the year – the harvest festival, otherwise known as Pongal. This festival marks the beginning of spring, and people offer thanks to the Sun God for a bountiful harvest and seek blessings for the coming year. Pongal is also a time when the farmers take a break from working in the fields and celebrate with their families. During the festival, villages and communities come together to rejoice and engage in festivities that last a few days.
In this article, we talk about the various items and practices associated with the festival and their significance. Share these interesting details with your kids and help them learn more about the festival.
Significant items and traditions of Pongal
Pongal, a mixture of rice, milk and jaggery, is cooked in a new earthen pot on the second day of the Pongal festival in Tamil Nadu. Pots are important items in a household as they are used for cooking, storing grain, growing plants, and also for various religious rituals. Earthenware pots are significant as they are known to have been used by ancient civilizations as well. The Pongal pot is decorated with auspicious symbols and fresh turmeric leaves are tied just below the mouth. The new pot, and the freshly harvested rice that is used for the dish, are symbolic of new beginnings. In fact, when preparing the Pongal, the rice is allowed to boil and overflow, symbolizing prosperity, good fortune and abundance. The pot is carefully preserved through the year until the next harvest.
This yellow vermilion powder is considered auspicious and is used in all important occasions and festivals, especially those that mark new beginnings. Fresh turmeric leaves and bulbs are tied to the mouth of the pot in which Pongal is made. The dark orange color of the bulbs is extremely significant in Hindu tradition and culture and is said to symbolize courage and sacrifice. Turmeric is also known for its natural healing and medicinal properties.
Sugarcane is synonymous with the harvest festival and is one of the most important crops harvested during the season. The celebrations are incomplete without the long sugarcane stems adorning the sites of the festival rituals. The tall, straight and firm stem of sugarcane symbolizes a stern and balanced mind that fosters positive thoughts. There is also a spiritual significance to sugarcane – Goddess Lalitha Tirpura Sundari holds a sugarcane along with four other items. The sugarcane represents the sweetness of her mind. It is also believed that Lord Shiva fed sugarcane to a carved stone sculpture of an elephant at the Madurai Meenakshi Temple on Pongal day.
The bonfire is the highlight of Boghi, the day before Pongal. With the sun beginning to move north, days are longer and there is an increase in temperature that helps seeds sprout. The bonfire is lit on the grounds of harvested fields or on the front yards of homes. People sing traditional folksongs and dance around the bonfire. It is also believed that the flames of the bonfire carry prayers and messages to the Sun God to provide warmth for the crops. Prayers are also offered for good health, abundance of harvest and prosperity.
Sesame or ‘til’ is one of the crops harvested for Pongal, and it is significant for the festival. According to legend, these seeds are symbols of immortality. They are believed to have been created when drops of sweat trickled from Lord Vishnu’s sweat and fell to Earth. Traditionally, during the winter months, sweets made of sesame and jaggery are prepared as they have a long shelf life and can be easily stored. These foods also have several health benefits like keeping the body warm, increasing immunity and protecting from illnesses during the winter.
Jallikattu is the much-celebrated bull taming sport that is popular in the southern districts of Tamil Nadu. This sport is known to date back several centuries and was popular among warriors. It was traditionally held to celebrate the valor and pride of the men and their prized cattle. During Jallikattu, a bull is released into an open ground and the participants try to grab a pouch of coins tied to its horn by riding on the hump, without falling off. It is usually held on the day after Pongal, called Maatu Pongal. The event showcases the vigor and quality of the native breeds of bulls. Bulls are important to farmers as they are used to plough the fields. This game is seen as an opportunity for farmers to show-off their well-groomed and potent cattle. The sport is also said to be symbolic of the relationship the farmers share with their prized bulls.
Read about other customs and traditions followed for Pongal here - Pongal Festival: Significance of Customs and Traditions.
Significant traditions followed in other states
Other states in India also celebrate the harvest festival with splendor, as the same time as Tamil Nadu celebrates Pongal. Going by different names in each state, like Makar Sankranti, Bihu or Lohri, here are some significant traditions followed in other states.
Kite flying is an integral part of the Sankranti festival, celebrated in the states of Gujarat, Rajasthan and Telangana. People participate in this event with much enthusiasm, and the sky teeming with a riot of colors is indeed a sight to behold. The bright hues of the kites symbolize the arrival of spring and the glorious colors of the season. The tradition of kite flying is believed to be good for the people as they are exposed to the gentle rays of the spring sun, which is said to cure winter illnesses. Besides, these rays are believed to have several health benefits and are a good source of Vitamin D. Another common cited reason for this tradition is that kite flying is a great exercise—it strengthens the arm muscles, which are much needed for all the hard work that farming involves.
The International Kite Flying Festival has been taking place in the city of Ahmedabad for the last three decades with participation from flying enthusiasts from across the world. The festival witnesses spectacular displays of innovative and unusual kite designs every year.
Bihu or Bhogali Bihu is the harvest festival celebrated in Assam and a few other north-eastern states of India. This festival, unlike the other harvest festivals in India, is dedicated to Agni, the God of Fire. An integral part of the celebrations is Meji—a bonfire that is lit and left to burn down on the morning of the festival as an offering to the God of Fire for a good harvest in the coming year. The bonfire tower is a tall hut-like structure, traditionally made out of bamboo, dried leaves and hay. The villagers come together to make the tower, and their combined effort itself is a celebration of the bountiful harvest. On the previous evening, they sing, dance and feast around the Meji.
The burning down of the Meji symbolizes the triumph of light over darkness and life over death. Food items like rice, pulses, and ghee are thrown into the fire as offerings to God. Later, the ashes of the burnt-down Meji are scattered on the fields to increase the soil’s fertility. Some communities believe that the fire of the Meji is a means of seeking blessings for welfare and prosperity.
Another significant element of the Bihu festival of Assam is the ritual of Magh Bondha. This involves tying straw around fruit bearing trees as it is believed to enhance their fertility. Similarly, pieces of straw are also tied to granaries and cattle sheds, while praying for an abundant harvest and produce in the coming agrarian year. This practice is also believed to increase the prosperity of the household.
So, there you have it – a variety of unique and diverse cultural and religious traditions! Aren’t these aspects of the harvest festival fascinating? Go, ahead and tell your children all about them and perhaps even practice a few of them together!
About the author:
Written by Amrita Gracias on January 12, 2020.
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