Pongal Festival: Significance of Customs and Traditions
The warmth of the Bhogi bonfire, the aroma of Sakkarai Pongal, the ritual of worshipping the cattle, and meeting and greeting each other – Pongal isn’t just a festival but also a learning experience.
By Arun Sharma • 8 min read
Even before the festive spirit of the New Year subsides, Indians begin getting ready for another round of merrymaking – this time with celebrating Pongal, or Makar Sankranti, as it is more widely known.
In Hinduism, January 14 of every year marks the beginning of the Sun’s journey northward. It is considered one of the most auspicious days and is celebrated throughout the country, but with different names. It is called Pongal in South India, Makar Sankranti in the North, East and West, Lohri in Punjab and Bihu in Assam.
While this harvest festival is known by many names, the spirit and fervour with which it is celebrated across the country remains the same. In Tamil Nadu, Pongal is celebrated over four days, with each day of the festival known by a different name based on what people do on that day.
All the four days of Pongal embody a noble message for humankind. This year, while you celebrate Pongal with your family, also tell your child about the customs of this festival and what they teach us. Read on to know what you should tell your child.
Day One – Bhogi: A day before Bhogi, family members get together and clean the house getting rid of unwanted articles and trash. On the day of Bhogi, everyone wakes up very early in the morning. The day starts with taking a bath and drawing ‘kolam’ (rangoli) outside the homes, usually in the courtyard or in front of the main entrance. At the same time, a bonfire is also lit. Once the bonfire begins to burn well, the trash collected from cleaning the home is thrown into the fire.
What you should tell your child: Cleaning the home and burning the trash in the bonfire signify a break from the old and making a fresh start. Lord Indra – the god of rain and clouds – and the plough and other farming equipment are also worshipped on this day. This is done to seek blessings for a plentiful harvest. Worshipping Indra shows how much we depend on nature and its resources for our health and happiness.
Day Two – Surya Pongal: On this day, taking a bath early in the morning, people worship the Sun god (Surya). After the prayer is over, freshly harvested rice is cooked in a mixture of milk and jaggery in a new clay pot. The cooking takes place in an open, sun-lit area, usually the courtyard. The mixture of rice, milk and jaggery is allowed to come to a boil and spill over. As this happens, family members gather around the pot and shout in joy “Pongalo Pongal, Pongalo Pongal.” The dish is then offered to the Sun god before being partaken of by all the family members.
What you should tell your child about Surya Pongal: Without the sun, life on the earth would come to an end, as neither humans nor plants can thrive. It is for this reason that the Sun god (Surya) is worshipped. Also, worshipping the Sun when it begins its northward journey, causing a change of season, is also a sign of trying to establish harmony with Nature. Allowing the mixture of rice, milk and jaggery to spill over signifies abundance and prosperity, which we hope and pray for on the day of Surya Pongal.
Day Three – Mattu Pongal: This day is dedicated to farm animals like cows, bulls and oxen. On the occasion of Mattu Pongal, the animals are bathed and their horns are decorated. Garlands made of flowers, and bells and threads of different colours are tied around their necks. Rituals are performed to ward off any evil eye cast on the animals and they are also worshipped. A dish known as Sakkarai Pongal is prepared, which is first offered to the cows and then to other animals.
What you should tell your child about Mattu Pongal: Before the advent of mechanisation, almost every animal contributed significantly to the survival and progress of mankind. However, special attention is paid to cows, bulls and oxen as cows provide milk, and bulls and oxen help with agriculture, which produces food grains to alleviate our hunger. Giving these animals a place of pride on the occasion of Mattu Pongal is an expression of our gratitude towards them for the immense contribution they have made to humankind.
Day Four – Kaanum Pongal: Festivals aren’t just religious occasions, but also have a cultural and social significance. In Tamil, the word ‘Kaanum’ means ‘to see’. So, now you can guess what this day would be all about. Kaanum Pongal is the day when people put on their best attire and socialise with their relatives and friends, or visit some other place.
What you should tell your child about Kannum Pongal: The urge to progress and go further ahead has always kept humans busy. Kannum Pongal, and other similar occasions, provide us with the opportunity to take a break from our hectic schedule and re-establish our bonds with others. So, Kannum Pongal is a day to re-charge our relationships as well as our spirit.
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