Pongal: Then And Now

Pongalo Pongal! The harvest festival is here! As you feast on sweet pongal and sugarcane, read on to know how the festival and its traditions have changed over the years.

By Vidya Nesarikar  • 11 min read

Pongal: Then And Now

Pongalo Pongal! Shubh Makar Sankranti! Lohri Hain Lohri! Happy Boghali Bihu! 

The first festival of the calendar year is here! Be it kite flying, socialising, salutations to the Sun God, decorating cattle, blazing bonfires, or foods fortified with sesame seeds or rice and jaggery – there is a ‘warm’ buzz in the air. Whichever part of India you are from and whatever be the customs and rituals you follow, the excitement around the harvest festival is palpable. 

A celebration of a bountiful harvest, marking the end of the winter and dedicated to the Sun as it begins its six-month journey towards the North – Pongal aka Makar Sankranti or Lohri is a festival that reminds us of the cycle of life – that a long, gloomy winter is always followed by warm, sunny days.

What do we know about the harvest festivals though? There are some heartwarming traditions, which have been passed down generations – some which we still follow and some which we seem to have forgotten. This Pongal teach your kids the significance of the harvest festival, the traditions associated with it and how it has changed over the years. 

Significance and Traditions – what we know and what we don’t

Pongal: Then And Now


The harvest festival is a five-day affair in Tamil Nadu. The name Pongal is derived from the word ‘Pongu’ in Tamil, which means to overflow. In villages where farming is the main occupation, Pongal is a huge celebration. Bhogi marks the first day of the festivities, and on this day, people discard old things and burn them in a fire. This signifies the end of old things and the start of new beginnings. The second day observed as Thai Pongal is the main day of the festivities. The traditional sweet Pongal dish, made from jaggery and rice and cooked in beautifully-coloured pots, is served first to the Gods, then to the cows and finally distributed to friends and family. That is the social order! Maatu Pongal, the third day of the festival is dedicated to cattle – cows and bulls. The horns of cattle are painted and adorned with bells. In many parts of rural Tamil Nadu, the traditional sport of cattle race called Jallikattu is still very popular.

Makar Sankranti

In Karnataka, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal the harvest festival goes by the name Makar Sankranti. In Karnataka, it is a visual treat to watch little girls dressed up in traditional Jari Langas (skirts) and distributing sweets made of ‘Ellu’ (sesame seeds) to neighbours. Kite flying, taking a dip in sacred rivers like the Ganga, Yamuna, Godavari, Krishna and Kaveri, celebrating around bonfires and spending time with family after months of hard work in the fields make this festival worth waiting for.

Pongal: Then And Now


Lohri is celebrated in Punjab with great enthusiasm, with people looking forward to longer, sunnier days after the winter solstice. Lohri is said to be the longest night in the lunar calendar. On this day, people gather around bonfires, sing songs and toss foods like puffed rice, sesame seeds, sugarcane and popcorn to celebrate the harvest. Laddoos made from ‘Til’ (sesame seeds) are distributed. According to folklore, the flames from the bonfires carry signals of warmth to the sun, and the sun knows that winter is officially over.

Magh Bihu

Magh Bihu or Boghali Bihu is celebrated in Assam. It is marked by bull flights, dances, games and delicious meals. Young people construct huts called as Meji and Bhelaghar, from bamboo, leaves and thatch. They eat the food prepared in feasts in the Bhelaghar and then burn the huts the next morning, throwing rice cakes and betel nuts into the fire as it burns. The buffalo fight is an important part of the festivities here. 

Harvest festivals as we now know

Pongal: Then And Now

Geetha Amarnath from Bangalore shares how her son’s study lesson was an eye-opener. She says, “Incidentally, my son is studying about Pongal in his Hindi class this month. At home, once he finished reading that chapter in his text book, he turned to me and said “Mummy, we don’t do many of these things.” I didn’t have an answer to that. In cities, it is hard to follow some of the harvest festival rituals. I told him that this year we will try and do more like distributing sesame seed sweets and sugarcane to the neighbours, and perhaps even kite flying.”

Several parents noted that the number of people celebrating Pongal have reduced drastically. Earlier, people in a locality would come together and celebrate. People celebrated as a society in some of the big townships. On Bhogi, the day before Pongal, people would clean their houses and burn things they didn’t need. This has now been banned by the government now, owing to pollution.

Pongal: Then And Now

“People used to celebrate Pongal traditionally by drawing Rangoli on their courtyards or on the streets, painting new mud pots and flaunting their cows that were beautifully decorated with ribbons and flowers. Nowadays all we have are memories of such scenes from villages. I feel bad that my daughter will never see all this in the cities”, says Vidyuth Subramanyam from Chennai.

“On Kanum Pongal, the last day of Pongal festivities, people used to visit their extended family or take a day-trip to tourist spots. Now, most people avoid tourist places because of huge crowds. These days it is mostly about watching blockbuster movies that release for Pongal either at home or at a mall,” she concludes. 

A lot more than just traditions 

Surprisingly, the harvest festival is also influenced by astronomy. The festival celebrates the change in the direction of the Sun. ‘Makara’ refers to the Capricorn Zodiac and ‘Sankranti’ refers to the movement of the Sun. Hence, Makar Sankranti denotes the Sun’s travel to the Capricorn Zodiac. You may wonder why only Makar Sankranti is celebrated and not the movement of the sun into the other 11 zodiacs? This is because, with the Sun’s entry into the Makara zodiac, the summer season begins, and we celebrate solar energy and positivity associated with it.

Pongal: Then And Now

Across the country, sesame seeds and jaggery are consumed in various forms during the harvest festival. If you have ever wondered why, here is an insight for you. There is a Marathi greeting during Makar Sankranti which goes like ‘Til Gud ghya ni god god bola’ which translates to ‘Eat sesame and jaggery and speak well’. Sesame seeds and jaggery are considered super foods for the cold winter months in Ayurveda. Til chikkis and laddoos were common in most households, and they have a long shelf life as well. The oil in the sesame seeds generates heat for the body, which is much needed during the winter. Jaggery is a rich source of iron and Vitamin C. It keeps sore throat away and builds immunity. 

“Our ancestors really had a better idea of foods to be consumed for each season,” quips Kamaljeet Kaur, as she finishes making a fresh batch of til laddoos for her family.

The harvest festival has also been about socializing and creating opportunities for bonding within the community. Cattle races, dances, dramas, feasts, kite flying and exchanging mouth-watering dishes have supported this.

It is imperative to make children understand about the significance of this harvest festival. Children need to appreciate that vegetables and fruits do not just come from the supermarket, but because of the hard work and effort put in by the farmers. Even if you feel you are not able to celebrate all the nuances of Makar Sankranti in the city, you can strive to recreate many of the traditions. Schools also make it a point these days to make tiny tots celebrate the festival with traditional clothes and dances.

Encourage children to talk to grandparents and learn of yesteryear stories. Try and visit villages or a homestay on a farm during the harvest season. And as always, festivals are a time for family and bonding, sharing food, feasts and festivities. Make this Pongal a special and memorable one for your children.

About the author:

Written by Vidya Nesarikar on 9 Jan 2019. 

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